7 ways to praise your child instead of saying “well done”

Laughing girl showing thumbs up.

With the ‘mummy wars’ raging on everything from cloth nappies to gendered time out chairs for kids, it seems the topic of praise is now under the spotlight too.

But before you write this off as yet another silly mum argument, I believe questioning the way praise has traditionally been doled out to our children is a vital conversation.

Why? Because praise plays an important part in shaping the ways in which children see themselves and their identities going into adulthood. And yet the type of praise matters: it’s to do with the quality, not the quantity.

The 6:1 rule

It’s well known that criticism is very powerful should be used sparingly: many researchers recommend praising your child six times for every 1 criticism. Reading this, some parents go a bit nuts, making it more like a 30:1 ratio, handing out compliments like “good job” and “well done” in the hopes that the more praise they give, the more accomplished, confident and happy their child will be.

These parents may be well-intentioned, but science disagrees. Several studies over the last few decades have found that simplistic, surface level praise like “good job” can actually have the opposite effect to what is hoped: it can demotivate a child to repeat that behaviour and limit a child’s ability to learn and grow. Over time, this type of praise can create children who are ‘praise-junkies’ and who tend to externalise what success looks like by seeking approval and recognition from awards and top marks.

Boy smiling at father

Instead of saying “well done” or “good job” try these alternative praise strategies.

1. Before you praise, ask questions

When a child brings up their artwork to you, it can be tempting to say: “Great job!” but instead, pause, and then ask a question like:
“How did you do that?”
“Which bit was the trickiest?”
“Which bit is your favourite?”
“Is there a story here?”

Note: If you’re just introducing these kinds of questions with your child, after praising their artwork in the past, be prepared for some ‘I don’t knows’ at first, because they will be used to hearing praise first. Be patient, and persevere.

2. Praise their character

It’s important that your child knows that what they do or achieve is not nearly as important as building their character.

If you notice a desirable characteristic displayed in your child, such as generosity, kindness, empathy or standing up for someone, tell them you noticed and that you’re proud of them.

3. Praise their strategy and process

The old saying “it’s about the journey, not the destination” applies here. Instead of focusing on the end product (the science project, LEGO tower or dollhouse), praise the process. This helps if you’ve been observing the child throughout.

You could say: “I saw the way you solved that tricky problem with balancing the bridge” or “You found a clever way to do that”.

4. Be authentic in your encouragement

It’s important that we are honest with our kids instead of glossing over the bad bits. A recent South-Korean study linked parent’s over-praise and under-praise of their children to an increase in depression and academic demotivation. It found that the happiest kids were those whose parents gave appropriate praise and feedback in equal measure to their accomplishments.

Mother comforts sad daughter at school

5. Praise descriptively/state what you can see

Sometimes all you need to do is describe what you’re seeing to encourage your child.
“You seem to really enjoy playing with those dress-ups.”
“You’re walking by yourself. What a big boy!”

6. Praise their effort

Our children won’t always be the best at everything, so noticing and verbally acknowledging the effort they put in goes a long way. It also helps them see that achieving a personal best or learning something new can be a reward in itself.
“I can see you tried really hard in that spelling bee, and even though you didn’t make it to the finals, after all that practice, you know some new words. Let’s try again next year!”

7. Simply thank them

Instead of handing out a distracted “good job” when your child does everyday things that after a while don’t require as much skill, such as sitting down at your request or putting on their shoes, simply say “thank you for _________”.

How do you praise your kids? We’d love you to share your thoughts with us on Facebook.

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