Years ago educators realized that children with low self esteem struggled to succeed in school – academically and socially (and in other areas as well). Suddenly, the decision was made to eliminate anything that could potentially lower a child’s self esteem. Honor rolls, competition of any kind and even critiquing student work and behavior were frowned upon in many schools.
After several years of this, something interesting happened. Many students started having an attitude of entitlement. Negative behaviors increased. Their self esteem had been allowed to get too high. Educators found self esteem that was too high might have different issues attached to it, but it was still problematic when trying to help young people reach their full potential. Those who have seen the research and taught students who think they have nothing to learn have begun making adjustments once again.
Children are constantly learning and growing. Sometimes that process is difficult. Young people make mistakes and at times fail to accomplish their goals. They need encouragement from adults to make it easier for them to keep going when things aren’t going well. Often that encouragement comes in the form of praise.
Praise is tricky. Done poorly, it can feel meaningless or cause inflated egos and unrealistic self esteem. Done well, it can encourage young people to push through difficulties and reach their goals. There are some things to keep in mind when attempting to praise a young person that will make your words as effective as possible.
- Don’t praise just to praise. Kids can tell if your praise is sincere or not. Praising because you think you must – not because you have noticed something praiseworthy – won’t have a positive impact.
- Don’t overstate or attach new expectations to praise. When you tell a small child he or she is the best artist in the world, part of the child will know that is not true. Young people can’t trust praise they know may be exaggerated. On the other hand, immediately following praise with ”so what are you going to do next” makes young people feel as if they will never be good enough. Be honest with your praise (“I love the colors you used in your painting”) and celebrate the ”victory” being praised. Next steps can be discussed at a later time.
- Praise in private the majority of the time. Believe it or not, kids sometimes find praise embarrassing. It also puts pressure on adults to give the same amount of praise to every child. While a noble goal, most adults won’t keep track of how much praise is given to each child in the ways kids might. There are times when public praise is good, but too much of it can begin sounding hollow or lead to inflated egos.
- Consider giving praise in writing. Young people go through phases when they might not listen to praise well. A short note of praise allows you the freedom to say everything you want to say. Many kids will keep those notes and pull them out when they are struggling.
- Praise effort and improvement over results. Not every young person will achieve goals easily or do things well. Waiting for encouragement until the results are in, may mean going a very long time with no praise. Many times these kids put in more effort than those to whom everything comes easily. Encouraging effort and improvement can encourage all young people to be perseverant.
- Constantly reinforce that your love for them is unconditional. Too much shallow praise and kids begin to believe your love is connected to being praiseworthy. They need to know you will still love them even if they fail.
- Praise godly failure. Often failure is a part of learning and growing . If children put in the effort and failed, it can be important to give reassuring praise. This is especially true if they were trying out for something and weren’t chosen. Praise the courage to try new things.
- Consider connecting praise to scripture. Praise connected to scripture can help them understand where their character is beginning to be what God wants it to be. ”I loved how you were so kind to the new kid at school. You made me think of the Good Samaritan in how you noticed he needed a friend and did something to help – even when others didn’t.”
- Avoid using the word ”proud” when praising. I know it sounds a bit silly, but kids can be the word police at times. Christian kids know pride is wrong. They don’t understand the nuances of the word in English. They may reject your praise as somehow ”wrong” if you use the word ”proud”. ”I love…” usually gets the same message across without running into interference.
- Be specific and give at least one example. Sometimes compliments can be too general to be helpful as encouragement. ”You are a great kid!” sounds wonderful, but what does ”great” mean? Try to be more specific and give an example. ”I love how you are so kind to others, like when you invited the new kid at school over to play.” This gives young people enough information to know what they are actually doing that is worthy of praise and should be continued.
It can help make praise more effective if you think of it as encouragement. Young people need encouragement to make it easier to do hard things. Make sure they get what they need to persevere without becoming entitled or egotistical.