All Praise Is Not Equal: Tips for Building True Self Esteem and Resilience

I’ve been meeting with many couples lately struggling to agree on parenting, particularly regarding how they praise their children. Some feel their partners over praise, and some under praise.  What I find most common is a lack of understanding regarding the “what” and “how” to praise in a way that truly empowers and prepares children for the ongoing growth process of adulthood. Parent education actually began in our country in the 1800s, and then boomed with the self esteem movement in the 60s. That being said, unfortunately, many still “wing it” when it comes to parenting.  This is dangerous because without awareness of ourselves, and of what it takes to help a child connect to their personal power, we are at great risk for passing on to our children traces of our own trauma, and the less-than-ideal modeling we may have received.

The messages we want to send our children (and the ones we don’t) can clearly come through the way we praise. We often don’t realize how sensitively attuned our children are to the direct and indirect messages they receive based on how we respond to their everyday challenges, triumphs, emotions and behaviors—ranging from their sports, hobbies, friendships, school performance or behavior in the home. And let’s not forget their perfect vision when it comes to watching how we treat ourselves and behave with others.

How can we best strengthen our children’s drive and willingness to take risks, while at the same time, instill the security that comes from feeling loved and valued unconditionally. How can we help them believe in themselves, regardless of their innate ability? How can we help them build the desire to work hard not for us, but for themselves? How can guide them to find their inner compass while sharing life lessons and values we deem important for adulthood and our world?

Here are some simple tips. Please don’t mistake simple for easy or inconsequential, and some might surprise you.

Praise Hard Work More Than Smarts

Most all of us believe in the importance of telling our kids how smart they are. But some persuasive and surprising research is showing that overemphasizing smarts can lead kids to think, I am smart, so I don’t need to make an effort. Furthermore, putting in effort becomes stigmatized, creating a feeling of shame if you are one of those kids who can’t cut it with natural gifts.

In a fascinating study conducted in New York schools, research showed a profound difference among 400 5th-graders where half were told “You must be smart at this,” and the others “You must have worked really hard.”  90% of those who were praised for their effort chose a harder task for the second round of a puzzle test. Those praised for their intelligence, most chose the easier task. Why?

“When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed. (Excerpt taken from the New York Times)

Praise the Process More Than the Win 

One of the most beautiful teachings I have learned from studying the universal wisdom of Kabbalah is the appreciation for the process over the outcome. We are human “beings” not human doings. It’s the lessons we learn along the journey, the messages for us in the difficulties we face, the challenges we overcome that show us the strength we didn’t think we had. It’s the growth and the evolving that fulfill us, long term; not the instant gratification of good news or a win, or a good grade. We want to help our children open their eyes to extract the nectar from the process itself. The true joy is visceral in the moment as we engage, as we do the work itself, not just for some later outcome. It’s counterintuitive but worth the effort to build our capacity for grasping that the joy in the process itself is the outcome.

Praise to Make it About Them Not You

Without meaning to, we can easily encourage a dependency in our children on the praise they receive from us. All children (hey, even 55 year olds) continue to desire their mom and dad to approve and feel proud of them. Nonetheless, we want our children to be the owner of their achievements. We can help our kids shift the focus away from Our evaluation of them to Their inner fulfillment from a job well done. We want to teach the universal law of cause and effect. When I put in the effort, I internally feel proud of that and my hard work. I put the stones down on my own path and so isn’t this a sweet and powerful path, now indeed.

Larissa Dann, a parenting effectiveness trainer, suggests staying away from what, for many of us, is so hard to not let slip off our tongues, and that is: “I am so proud of you.” Rather, try:

I am so proud FOR you;

Wow, I’m so impressed;

You must be so proud of yourself;

You really looked pleased with your effort.

Praise to Encourage Not Coerce

One of my teen clients, and many of my male adults looking back, experience great pain with how much emphasis Dad placed on them playing a particular sport, and well. Many can feel that the praise they receive is actually attention they so long for but that only shows up if they follow what they know Dad or Mom wants them to have a passion for. Don’t do this. As parents we must explore what our own expectations and needs are and make sure we don’t bleed these agendas, insecurities, and often distorted belief systems from our own upbringing, onto our unique children who have a path of their own to find. When we have our own agenda, and kids pick up on this so keenly, then we can leave them with an inner emptiness of not feeling loved for who they are and certainly not good enough.

Praise with Specifics Instead of Generalities

One way to encourage motivation is to offer specific praise with judgment-free statements, such as

“I noticed you used a lot of materials.” 

“I see that you are working hard to give your friend another chance.”

“You have really practiced and become stronger, I can hear it when you play the marimba.”

“You put in some long hours and I can see how determined you are.”

“You set the table and picked up your shoes; I noticed and this makes such a difference.”

Praise with Sincerity and When Deserved

Children don’t need to believe they are broad based superstars to develop competence and self esteem. In fact, kids have fine tuned radars when it comes to hidden agendas and insincerity. Some see praise when undeserved as a sign they lack ability and that they must need the encouragement. Once kids see that your praise is meritless then they lose trust in the other valid praises you give them. 

Praise Values and Character Traits

What we focus on is what we encourage to grow, in ourselves and in our children. Take special notice so you can catch your children demonstrating values that you believe will help them live a happier life, as well as create harmony and a stronger society. When you see your children being kind, sharing when it’s difficult to, standing up for themselves, standing up for someone else, overcoming a fear, getting back on the horse, taking the high road, overcoming a weakness, taking on more responsibility, giving someone the benefit of the doubt … you get the idea. These are examples of what we want to make sure don’t go unnoticed. Again, being specific and offering simple statements of catching them in the act of doing good, this is praise as fertilizer.

 Model Self Acceptance, A Growth Mindset and Ample Room For Mistakes

Keep an eye out for how you treat and talk to yourself. Your kids are watching and learning what self respect and self love look like. Be mindful of your own perfectionism, dependence on outcome and approval, and where you might feel stuck. We are not here to be perfect. Perfectionism is a response to trauma, not a healthy goal. That being said, sometimes we neglect our own personal growth and self care in trying to help our kids become the best they can be. The truth is, It’s quantum. The more we work on our own lives and inner happiness, we give our kids the best give ever. The best version of ourselves and one that models the permission to live being true to ourselves.