How to Praise Kids: What Works and What Doesn't

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

With so much focus on making sure kids have "good self-esteem," we parents tend to take every opportunity to tell our kids that they're great. However, two influential researchers have discovered that self-esteem is based on kids feeling a sense of control over their environments.

Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The Optimistic Child, believes that children develop resilience and confidence in their ability to cope with challenges by discovering how their actions influence results. Instead of labeling himself "bad at math," "terrible at sports," or "friendless," a child can be encouraged to take constructive steps. Optimism trumps helplessness when a child has learned that there are specific actions he can take. For example, he can study harder for the test, practice throwing a ball or initiate a phone call to an amiable classmate.

Similarly, a body of research spearheaded by Professor Carol Dweck, (now of Stanford University, formerly of Columbia University) and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, indicates that kids who are praised for effort rather than for being "smart" are more likely to persist in tasks and ultimately succeed. When the going gets tough, kids praised for effort feel that they are able to handle difficult problems, while kids who are consistently told they are "smart" may shy away from trying, lest their performance contradict this label. They come to believe that if they are so smart, success should come easily, and they are then thrown for a loop when they face tasks that require more effort than usual.

Research also indicates that specific feedback is more helpful to kids than general comments. Kids like to be told when they are doing something "right," and benefit from hearing specifics - whether it's about the length of time they've put into a math assignment, their colorful use of crayons, or the kind way they have shared a toy with a sibling.

Parent approval is powerful. While you need to let your kids know you'll love them no matter what, also take the time to ensure that your praise is targeted to the behaviors and activities you would like to encourage.

-Sylvia Barsotti is the Editor of Parenting Content at Highlights for Children. For more thoughts on parenting from Highlights, please visit