The trouble with praise…..


Welcome to The Trouble with Praise mini-series! I hope you find it useful.

So I grew up in a house with no praise. This was 1970s & 1980s Ireland & it was just not a part of my parents’ world to acknowledge effort. There was an unspoken assumption that we would just get on with it, do as we were told, & do well at school. I have to say it wasn’t the most encouraging approach! Which made me curious about praise- how we praise & what we praise. Two of my favourite books that talk about praise or encouragement are Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child- he has to have been one of the world’s most compassionate people. And Faber and Mazlish’s How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk.

The basic idea is that children need to be free from depending on external (our) evaluations of them so that they don’t become attached to others as the source of approval. For example, when my little girl was 4, she would often say to me ‘What do you think of my outfit, Mama?’ & I would say to her ‘What I think of it doesn’t matter. What do you think of it?’ ‘Like it.’ she would reply nonchalantly. ‘That’s the important thing,’ I would say (at the same time wondering ‘Will I be still able to do this when she is a teenager wearing a belt or a tissue as a skirt?’!!) What you want to do is have them develop their own positive self-image & not rely on other people’s appraisals.

Effective praise needs to focus on the child’s efforts & achievements and not on their personality or character. We all say things like:

You’re such a good girl.
You’re an angel.
You’re so smart.
You’re always so thoughtful.
The scarf you made me is beautiful. Really nice.

But words like good, beautiful, fantastic, awesome, & outstanding evaluate the child’s character & aren’t helpful. What can happen when we praise like this is that children reject it because their own picture of themselves is different. So let’s have a look at what the child may think when we praise character over effort:

Adult: You are such a good girl.
Child: (to herself) Well I wasn’t so good earlier when I hit my sister..


Adult: You always have such nice clothes
Child: (to himself) But how will I look the next time?

Research shows that children who are praised for being smart (You did really well on the test. You’re so smart.) are less likely to take on challenging tasks because they are afraid they won’t be smart the next time. Children who are praised for their efforts (You must have worked really hard.) on the other hand, relish a challenge because they expect to have to work hard. They have a growth mind-set. Carol Dweck’s Book Mindset is fascinating on this topic.

So what are we to do instead then?

Praise comes in two parts:
1. What you say to the child
2. What they then say to themselves

We want to communicate respect & understanding by describing what delights us, what we admire. We want to recognise effort as opposed to the end product. Haim Ginott gives a wonderful example & I love it so much I’m going to put the whole thing here:

How would any of us feel if, at the end of the month, the person who claims to love us handed us an evaluation? ‘In kissing you get an A but in hugging you only get a B; in loving, on the other hand, you get an A+.’ We would be upset and feel degraded. We would not feel loved.

So here are some examples of helpful praise:
Thank you for putting away the dishes. The kitchen looks tidy again.
I liked your birthday card. You used pink & I love pink.
Thank you for tidying up. I really appreciate it.
Your note brought me great joy.

One last example of descriptive evaluation or praise:

It’s time to tidy up the toys. My little girl is reluctant! However, she gets on with it & has put all the Lego pieces into the box apart from a few strays.
1. I describe what I see/feel: Almost all the pieces are in the box. All you have left to do is put in those 3 green pieces & put the lid on. (She puts them in the box). It’s lovely to see the place tidy. Thank you.
2. She thinks: I know how to clean up. I can finish something I start.

The challenges- actually there are two this time.

Challenge #1
1. Pick a time that suits you.
a. Set your timer for 5 minutes where you are playing with your child or maybe helping with
b. Listen to yourself & how you currently praise- what words do you use?
c. Write down what you said.
d. Please let me know in the comments what kinds of things you usually say.
e. Congratulate yourself for completing the challenge!

Challenge # 2

1. Pick the situation you used for observing how you currently praise such as your child dressing
themselves or setting the table.
a. Think in advance about what you are going to say & how you are going to say it
b. Write down what you will say
c. Try it and see what happens
d. Please let me know in the comments how it went- I love hearing your stories!
e. Congratulate yourself again!

Challenge #3

If you’re feeling up to a 3rd challenge

1. Recall what did you say to yourself to congratulate yourself after completing the challenges?
b. Was it the same after Challenge 1 and 2?
c. How did it feel?
d. Please tell me how you got in on the comments

If you like this post, please pass it on to your friends- I’d be so grateful! And you can find more interesting tips on the Facebook page- I’d be delighted if you liked it

See you soon!

Let’s get talking!



  1. Hi MP,
    A challenging subject indeed! I too love that Faber and Mazlich book. Glad it’s back in print as I found my copy in a second hand book shop 20 years ago. I photocopied lots of it for parents and discussed with them when in CUH. Glad it’s still relevant. I’ll look up the other book too.

    I wonder what you think about comments on children’s characters/personality traits , perhaps outside of praise time? For example, my son has SPD and has always been tentative with sand, paint, goo of any type to touch. This includes getting involved in baking – even washing! I do acknowledge his attempts to get involved in these activities and include my understanding of his dislike with these activities. Is that disparate?

    Good to read you again! X

    • Hi Gillian! Challenging is right! And of course once you start paying attention to how you give words of encouragement, you can get all tied up in knots trying to say something in a different way! I went back to Faber and Mazlish about your query in relation to your son. It would seem to me that it’s best to steer clear of character evaluations in general. They had a nice strategy where you describe what you see, for example, ‘You said you’d be home at 5 pm and it’s now 5 pm. Now that’s what I call punctuality.‘ Or ‘You were all set to go to that concert and when it was cancelled you quickly made other plans. Now that’s what I call being resourceful’. So the emphasis is on your description and perception which provides an opportunity for the child to consider themselves in that light. They were very interesting too about saying ‘I’m so proud of you’ as taking the focus off the child’s accomplishments and back to the adult’s evaluation. So rather than say ‘I’m so proud of you’ you could try ‘What an achievement! You must be so proud of yourself!’

      There’s also a very useful section in Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training about using Active Listening when the child has a problem that I think is good. I’ll be posting about praise a few more times so keep an eye our for more tips! Thanks for taking the time to comment and posing great questions! xx

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