July 1, 2015/by Betty Gewirtz
This is the first post in our “Because Kids Don’t Come With Instructions” series edited by Ellen Taner. The series is in support of FamilyKind’s Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) program beginning in the fall of 2015.
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Question: I have an 8-year-old who is very involved with school projects and sports. I am proud of her. When she was a very young child, I would often say “good job” when she listened to my requests. I praised her because I wanted her to know I loved her and valued her and the way she went about learning about the world. I wanted her to feel confident.
As she is growing and developing, I think praising her for every little thing she does is no longer helpful or appropriate. I want my daughter to feel confident, but I don’t want her to think everything she does is special and wonderful. That’s not realistic. What does my daughter need from me at her age?
Response: That’s a really important question that parents often struggle with — you’re not alone. It is a popular belief that praise builds self-esteem and confidence. Praise is a type of reward. However, when children receive lots of praise, they believe their value comes when pleasing others. Children’s feelings about their self-worth becomes dependent on whether or not they receive the reward of praise.
Encouragement teaches something else. It teaches children that effort and hard work matter — and that you can learn from your mistakes. Encouragement helps children tackle challenges and to solve problems when they feel frustrated. An encouraged child learns to appreciate the process, not only the result when they hear things like, “I have confidence in you, you made a strong effort,” or “It looks like this is a real challenge for you.”
Of course, there are times when praise is important. It recognizes an achievement that the child worked towards over time. That is important. And, just as important for children, is to learn to feel capable and willing to face challenges. Together, praise and encouragement build children’s problem-solving skills, creative thinking, and confidence.
Betty Gewirtz is a licensed clinical social worker and psychoanalyst in private practice in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and a parent educator in FamilyKind’s STEP program. Learn more