How can praise possibly be a bad thing? I asked myself this question as I began my research into the nature of praise. As a teacher and a mother, I am constantly aware of the power of my words and their impact upon young minds and self-esteem. I do believe that praise needs to be earned (kids can tell when it is unwarranted). And I am quick to provide positive feedback when a child puts forth great effort or has a creative idea. However, what I am learning is that the praise we offer our children can affect how they feel about their ability to learn.

In my classroom, I would often offer praise such as, “What a beautiful drawing!” or “You did a fantastic job on your writing assignment!”

With my own children, I may have said, “What a great goal that you scored!” or “You are so smart!” The most common phrase in both my classroom and in my home was, “I am proud of you.” This all sounds wonderfully encouraging, doesn’t it? However, I was making a mistake. Perhaps it is a mistake that many of you are unwittingly making too.

The praise that I offered was based on a final product, on a mastered talent or skill. It reinforced the idea that children are “good” at something, and when you are good at one thing, inevitably, you must be “bad” at something else.

When adults praise this way, it gives the impression that talents are fixed. If a child struggles with something or experiences a failure, the implication is that they must be bad at it. For example, if a child receives a poor score on an assignment at school, they may not attribute this failure to lack of effort or preparation, but may believe it is because they are “bad” at that subject. This leaves no room for motivation to improve or try again.

What I have learned is that we should be praising effort and progress. We can praise a child’s critical thinking or problem solving strategies. Imagine the impact of your words if you praised a child’s persistence and determination in a moment of struggle. “I admire how you keep trying different strategies to solve that issue.” “I notice that you never give up!” If we praised acts of kindness and empathy, how would this affect the behaviour of our children? Perhaps we should shift our focus to highlighting our children’s character, rather than their accomplishments.

I no longer offer the statement, “I am proud of you.” to my students or my children. This implies that children should strive to make me proud. It is a source of external motivation, when what we are truly seeking is for our children to be intrinsically motivated to learn and improve. Now, I offer the thought, “You should be proud of yourself.” What a powerful shift. Children know that they have the ability to work hard and to succeed. They are not in comparison to other children, only to their own progress and growth. They should not strive to earn the approval of the adults around them, but to be the best version of themselves.

So, keep praising your children, but perhaps take a moment to be mindful of what it is you are choosing to reward. Accomplishments may come and go, but the character of who our grandchildren are becoming and their values for effort and determination will carry them far in life.

Kelly Cleeve is a passionate educator with 14 years experience. She is a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, a wife and a mother of 2 beautiful boys.