How (not) to praise your child


How (not) to praise your child

Did you know that what you praise your child for and how you do it can have huge implications for how they think, feel and behave in the future?

Think of it as a double-edged sword: wielded correctly and it can boost your child’s resilience, attitude and motivation to learn - used recklessly, it can lead to narcissism, anxiety and a limiting mindset.

So, here is what the latest psychological research says on the do’s and don’ts of praising your children:

Three ways not to use praise

Praise can have an unintended negative impact on children when it falls into one of three categories: if it is excessive, if it focuses on their natural ability or if it is used in comparison to others.

If Praise Is Excessive

Praise is best thought of like penicillin. It should not be administered haphazardly, and excessive doses can make children immune to it. For example, one study found that too much praise often comes across as patronising, and results in children performing only the most basic behaviours asked of them, since they think they will be rewarded for it.

If praise focuses on natural ability

When children do well in an exam or on a piece of work, evidence suggests that the most common praise they hear is that they are ‘a smart boy’ or ‘such a clever girl’. This type of praise often leads to children developing a fixed mindset, which is where they believe their gifts and talents alone are what makes them successful, not what they do with them. Evidence suggests that this can lead to excessive stress, shaky self-confidence and ultimately with them disengaging from the task at hand.

If praise is used comparatively

Recent research has shown that parents praising their child by comparing them to others (e.g. “You were so much better than X”) can lead to negative outcomes. When children are constantly given lavish praise and are seen by their parents as being more entitled than others, they often come to believe that they are in fact superior. This subsequently leads to increased levels of narcissism. Constantly measuring oneself against others is a poor long strategy, as it relies on other people being present to stay motivated.

How to Use Praise Properly: The 3 S’s of Purposeful Praise

Recent research has shown that the type of praise that parents give their children at a young age can have a long-lasting effect on their mindset and motivation. The researchers found that process praise, which focuses on a child’s effort (for example: “good job trying to put that back”), is a much superior form of praise compared to person praise, which highlights positive, fixed attributes (e.g. “You’re such a smart girl”). This is because process praise allows a child to develop a positive, motivational framework, where they believe they can improve that if they put in the necessary effort, which in turn leads to enhanced achievement over time.

The best way to think about praise is to focus on the behaviours you want to see next time in your children. We call this ‘purposeful praise’. Everything else is just hot air. To help ensure your praise is purposeful, it should fall into one of these 3 S’s:

Selectively - What are the values and behaviours you value the most in your house? If you believe effort, resilience and determination are important, then be sure to voice this to your children through praise when they demonstrate it.  

Sparingly – Too much of anything is bad for someone. Sometimes, less is more. By consciously choosing when to praise your child, it will resonate for longer.

Specifically – A scatter gun approach rarely works, so target the moments that they will remember most. Evidence suggests that this may be when they experience a setback or disappointment. Praising what they did well ensures they will maintain motivation for next time.

Final thought

Praise can be one of the most effective tools at a parent’s disposal. Sometimes, in the rush to build up our children’s self-esteem, it can end up being used clumsily, chaotically and carelessly. Praise is how we communicate to our children what we think matters and what’s important. When viewed in this light, it makes much more sense to praise the processes, behaviours and attitudes that you think lead to both better learning and development.

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