Praise and Giving Recognition

Praise and Giving Recognition

Praise is one of the most powerful tools we have for increasing a child's positive sense of self. Actually, everyone can benefit from receiving praise if it is served up correctly. It seems simple enough to give praise, but in actuality if praise is not offered correctly, it can actually have the opposite effect of that intended. There are some specific rules for giving praise that will insure that it hits the mark and has the intended effect of reinforcing a child's self esteem.

Description Instead of Evaluation

In his book Between Parent and Child, Dr. Haim Ginott cautions us to avoid what he calls "evaluative praise." Evaluative praise is characterized by broad statements that focus directly on the personality traits or characteristics of a child rather than on their actions. For example:

"You are a really bright kid!"

"You are a very good-hearted boy."

And even worse:

"You are the best volleyball player I have ever seen!!!"

So what's wrong with these statements? They are certainly praiseworthy, yes? The problem is that in each case, we are setting the child up to feel the pressure of attaining the desired trait all the time. If you tell your daughter that she is the best volleyball player you have ever seen, she may translate that to having to attain the same level of performance on the court every time she plays. If she does not attain that level of performance, she will feel like she has failed and consequently she will experience a drop in self-esteem and possibly worse feelings such as shame, humiliation, or general unworthiness. A better way to restate all three of the above statements would be as follows:

"I see that you figured out how to put that train together. You followed those directions well. That takes patience and smarts!"

"I noticed that you shared your sandwich with Joey when he told you he forgot to bring in his lunch today. It was kind of you to help him out!"

"That was quite a game. You had some dynamite serves, not to mention you had some great passes as well as some great spikes of your own when you were on the net."

You see the difference. In the bottom three praise statements, the evaluation is left up to the child. The first child can draw his own conclusions that he is smart. You've even given him the words to use. In Joey's case, you have described his "good-hearted" behavior rather than labeling him as such. Again he can draw the conclusion himself without feeling that he has to live up to the label at all times. In the last example, you have very descriptively told the young volleyball player what she did well in this game. It leaves her room to make mistakes while encouraging her to keep working at her skills. Again, she can draw her own conclusions regarding her talent. As Ginott points out, praise has two parts: One is the part we offer which is to describe the act, and the other is to offer our words in such a way that the child can draw his own conclusion about his personality trait or characteristic. If he is not able to hit the same mark every time, he won't feel the humiliation of not living up to someone else's appraisal of him, yet he will be encouraged to strive toward positive behavior and personality traits.

Descriptive Rather Than Generic Phrase

The second rule for giving praise effectively is to be quite specific in what you are praising. Describe exactly what it is you see or are recognizing. Instead of "you are a good helper" you could say "I noticed that you picked up all of your clothes and put them in the hamper, picked up your toys in the living room, and took your backpack to your closet."

When you give praise that is specific to the action at hand, you are actually letting the other person know that you truly have noticed what they have done. If you say "good job", it feels quite perfunctory and doesn't really communicate the kind of interest and appreciation you are trying to get across. I saw this in action very clearly during a session with a little boy who was five years old at the time. We were playing with the nerf ball and paddles. We were hitting the ball back and forth to each other. At one point, he returned the ball to me with a fairly strong and well-aimed hit. I gave the enthusiastic "good job" to which he had minimal reaction. When he hit the ball later the same way, I responded this time by saying "That ball was aimed very straight and it really had a lot of power behind it! His face lit up and he said, "Yeah, I'm really strong. I can hit with a lot of power." He proceeded to work even harder to continue hitting in the same fashion.

It was the combination of detailed description and recognition of the accomplishment that made this little boy feel as though he had succeeded. And of course, he was able to take from my words to draw his own conclusions as to his talent. "I'm really strong" and "I can hit with a lot of power" were the conclusions he drew from my description of his action. Not only that, the detail in the description let him know that I really had noticed and appreciated how he had hit the ball. He continued to try and hit the ball the same way which he did sometimes, but he did not get discouraged when he didn't succeed every time. He had a bar to work toward without taking a hit to his self-esteem if he didn't reach it all the time.

Convey of State Your Own Reaction

So far we are giving praise by providing a detailed description of what we have observed so that your youngster can draw her own conclusions about her talents and accomplishments. The next part of the process is to state how you feel about what's been described. For example:

I see that you picked up your toys in the living room and cleared off the dining room table. That really helps me! I'll be able to get dinner on the table on time now because you've done some of the work already. That's thinking ahead!

You've started with the description of the action which is to observe in detail exactly what's been done; in this case picking up the toys and clearing off the dining room table. Next you have shown your real and sincere appreciation by stating how it has helped you. You go on to point out exactly how it has helped, i. e., it has saved time and dinner can be prepared on schedule. Finally, you've given your child the words to draw his own conclusion that about himself. "I can think ahead and figure out what needs to be done." You've encouraged his autonomous thinking. From that little bit of praise, a number of things have been accomplished. You've raised your child's self esteem, encouraged his autonomy, shown him the value of teamwork and promoted the practice of planning ahead. Wow! That's a lot for a little, don't you think?

One last word about stating your feelings when praising. It is not always necessary. Sometimes you are simply showing recognition of something that your child is doing and appreciation is not indicated. Just the statement is enough for the child to feel a lift in self-esteem and to draw his own conclusions. The statement of appreciation and encouragement is most often used when you are reinforcing a particular behavior.

Making Mistakes

It is important that to allow our children to make mistakes. It is equally important that to teach them that in every failure is the seed of success. That means that when mistakes are made, we can help them sort through the action and figure out what part of it went right and what part went wrong. This both encourages them to move forward while helping them to learn from their experiences. In this case, praise is used to encourage this process. Let's go back to our child who just cleared the dining room table for his mom. Let's say that in the process of clearing the table, he knocked over a glass which fell on the floor and shattered. What do you say and do? The first thing to do is take a deep breath if you are upset by it, and then simply say "Oops, look like we need to get out the broom (or vacuum cleaner) and clear up the glass." Add on:

I see that you picked up your toys in the living room and were trying to clear the dining room table for me. I really appreciate your effort! Sometimes it's hard to pick up stuff when there's glass around. It can break so easily. A little trick is to pick up all the breakable stuff first so it's out of the way. We'll just get it cleaned up and we can still get dinner on the table. Thanks for thinking ahead!

In this situation, praise is used to encourage learning from mistakes without excessive guilt. You are acknowledging that things can go wrong and at the same time, providing a way to avoid the problem next time. You've pointed out that glass requires particular care, and you've also given valuable information about how to prioritize which items to remove first which can be used in the future. The effort is applauded and the appreciation given, while the task of repairing the problem is facilitated.


  • Describe actions, efforts or behaviors rather than offer evaluative statements that define the personality.
  • Offer detailed descriptions of what you see or observe rather than using generic terms such as "good job."
  • Convey how you feel about what you have observed. If a feeling statement is not indicated, then be sure to offer your descriptive statement with sincerity and energy without going overboard. (Your enthusiasm should not outweigh that of your child's.)
  • When mistakes are made, praise the part of the action that went right while helping the child recognize what needs to be changed. Then help repair the mistake. Use your teaching skills to give information that can be used in the future in similar situations.
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