The Parenting Praise Paradox: What Every Parent Needs to Know About Praise

Beaming at ‘La Di Da Girl’ (aka, our 3rd child, second daughter), I yell “Aren’t you the best soccer player!” In her second soccer season, at age 6, she has figured out how to finally disengage from twirling her hair around her finger and looking for lady bugs in the grass, to focusing on the soccer ball coming toward her! I am one proud mama! 

That was almost 20 years ago! Where does the time go? La Di Da Girl is now helping refugees adjust to life in Canada and has the goal of one day living in Africa and empowering women there. Now I encourage differently. Something like “La Di Da Girl, you are a vocal advocate for those who don’t have a voice. You’re determined and hard-working“ and “I love spending time with you.” Let me tell you why. 

Praise we were told, built self-esteem. Studies have shown otherwise. It:

  • Steals a child’s pleasure, robbing them of joy in their accomplishments. Someone is evaluating their performance. Will they measure up? Maybe better NOT to express their ideas and opinions in case it’s not accepted.
  • Has them lose interest quickly. It’s less likely they’ll independently practise behaviours without being praised and once the attention is gone, they move on.
  • Creates praise junkies. They learn to measure their worth by what leads us to smile and give our approval. This undermines their self-confidence and manipulates them with ‘sugar coated control’.smilling gold star
  • Reduces achievement. When a child is told “what a smart boy” over and over, he starts to avoid situations where he may not appear smart. Praise creates pressure to ‘keep up the good work’.
  • Teaches that what kids are involved with, isn’t rewarding in and of itself. Kids who are praised for reading, learn that reading isn’t inherently rewarding – so they’re less likely to read independently.
  • Can breed competition and sibling rivalry. “What about me? Isn’t my drawing great too?” asks sister, when Susie’s mom praises her for the drawing she just completed. 

All praise isn’t alike. Research shows it comes down to WHAT we’re praising our child for. There are two primary ways to offer praise:

1. Person praise highlights the child’s personal qualities. It reinforces the child’s self.
Ex. “What a great kid you are.”
“You’re so talented.”
“You’re such an angel today.”
“Look at you – such an awesome soccer player.”
Findings suggest that personal praise predisposed children with low self-esteem to feel even more ashamed following failure. In kids with higher self-esteem it didn’t hurt, but didn’t help either. 

2. Process praise reinforces a child’s behavior, focusing on how hard the child tries or persists. It focuses on the efforts of the child.
Ex. “You’re committed to soccer practise and looks like you’re having fun.”
white and black child holding hands“Look at you working hard to catch up on math. This new school does it differently and you’re being persistent in figuring it out.”
“When you ask your new friend to come for a play date, you’re making a friend by being a friend.”
Seeing a kid struggle to master something new: “You really give it your all.”
This praise builds confidence and self-worth, specifically in children with low self- esteem. It allows children to try and views mistakes or failure as a temporary setback.
Supporting and encouraging our children is important. They need unconditional support – love with no strings attached. That’s the opposite of praise because “good job” is conditional. So what’s the alternative? 


Use body language. Say nothing. Let children feel good within themselves when they know they’ve done something well. Smile, make eye contact, and use positive body language. 

Say what you see. A judgement-free statement tells your child what you notice.
Ex. “You put away your trucks without being asked.” Leave off the ‘good boy’.
“I notice you working hard at that puzzle. I see your strategy is to fit the edges together first.”
“Look how happy you made your friend when you shared your toy.”
“You’re crying. You miss your friend. She is such a special friend and you wish she was here.”
It helps them take pride in what they did or who they are being. It also encourages them to try new skills. 

Be specific. Speak detail. It shows you’re really taking notice.
Ex. “Look at the large sun you drew… and you included clouds and some birds. That’s detail.”
“You’re listening carefully and following the instructions your teacher is giving you.”
“It must feel good to be able to write your ‘good bye’ notes to your friends by yourself.” 

Encourage new things and keep encouraging.
Ex. “You’ve almost got it. Just a little more and you’ll nail it.”
“That’s determination, trying to somersault on the trampoline. Keep trying.” 

Ask questions. It nourishes their interests.
Ex. “What part of your drawing do you like best? Why? What was the hardest part to draw?
“How did you pick up those noodles with the chopsticks?” 

Be genuine. Tell the truth. Kids have a way of knowing when praise is insincere. They then find it difficult to tell the difference between when you really mean it and when you don’t.
Ex. When he’s learning to dive and does a belly flop, don’t say “great dive”. Rather, “I see you’re working hard on your diving”. By not saying the action is good or bad, you’re truthful, diplomatic and letting your child know he has your attention. child in front of a class talking

Speak into your child’s character – what do you see that motivates the action your child has shown?
Ex. “I see you persisting with your homework. You’re close to finishing it.”
“You are being kind by giving Alyssa the last piece of mango.”
“With all those colours you’ve added to your painting, I see such creativity.”
“I saw you make eye contact with the kids in class and speak clearly in your oral report. That’s courage.” 

Tell your child what you like. It’s fine to express your feelings. The danger is when your child gets the message that she’s only good enough if she does things your way.
Instead of “Big girls help mummy.” Try “I like it when you help me. Thank you.”
Or “I’m having such a good time being with you today. I love it when we have fun together.” 

Experts say quality is more important than quantity when it comes to praise. If it’s sincere and focused on the effort instead of the outcome, it will land well. Say it when you really mean it. 

When our kids are dealing with change and transition through relocation, starting a new school, figuring out a new place and a culture that’s foreign to them, their self-esteem and confidence dwindles. Our words of encouragement can motivate courage, instill perseverance, and show them how you see them trying in the midst of challenge. Give it your best look or voice and keep trying. We’re all in this, learning together how best to champion our global nomads! 

Cheering you on to create miracles, small and large, wherever you are… 

Signature of Becky Matchullis - Expat Family Resilience Coach

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