When a grandchild does something terrific, you want to praise him to the skies. For most of the past 30 years psychologists and child development experts have promoted praise as one of the best ways to build a child’s self-esteem. But like so many other child-development theories, the idea that non-stop praise will boost self-esteem and help children succeed is being reconsidered. In fact, given what we now know, you may want to avoid over-the-top praise of your grandchildren.
In his research, Dr. Roy Baumeister reviewed hundreds of academic studies on children and self-esteem for the Association for Psychological Science. Much to his surprise, he discovered that high self-esteem did not automatically lead to better grades, future career achievement, or even lower rates of alcoholism or violence. Indeed, in certain areas, he found, praise can have clearly negative effects — overdoing it can diminish effort and make some children self-centered. Many parents were stunned by Baumeister’s conclusions, and those of similar studies.
Today’s consensus thinking, as articulated by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and others, offers a new model: When seeking to motivate kids, limit the praise, and keep your focus on the effort. Just a few minor tweaks in the way you address grandchildren can turn empty praise into productive encouragement. Whether a child has painted a picture, mastered bike riding, or moved to the head of the class, stand ready to acclaim their efforts rather than simply telling them they’re the best. Such encouragement builds confidence and gives kids long-lasting motivation. To see what we mean, consider these six examples:
SITUATION ONE: Your grandchild has done something on her own for the first time — such as using the potty, dressing herself, clearing her dishes, reading to you by herself.
Old praise: “You are so special!” “What a clever girl you are!”
New encouragement: “Aren’t you proud of yourself? You should be!”
WHY? The new approach teaches your grandchild to internalize her abilities and to evaluate herself accurately rather than expecting everything to come easily because adults tell her she is special.
SITUATION TWO: Your grandchild scores the winning point.
Old praise: “You’re the best!” “What would the team do without you?”
New encouragement: “The way you passed the ball to your teammate, and then she passed it back? That was pretty amazing!”
WHY? Specifics are always more instructive than blanket praise, and help keep a grandchild from believing that he is superior or invaluable. This way, he’ll be better able to handle whatever criticism, disappointment, or loss he may face at a future game or competition.
SITUATION THREE: Your grandchild shows you his sterling report card.
Old praise: “You’re brilliant.” “You’re so smart!”
New encouragement: “Wow, you must have worked very hard.”
WHY? Reinforcing the effort allows her to feel in control of what she can accomplish. Recent research confirms that children who are repeatedly told that they are exceptional, gifted, or very bright often don’t try as hard. They get a false perception of what they can achieve and begin to fear making mistakes and losing their status. As a result, they can underperform when faced with new, more difficult challenges.
SITUATION FOUR: A grandchild gives you a drawing or other piece of art that he made.
Old praise: “You’re a great artist!” “Nobody does that better than you!”
New encouragement: “How did you make that?” “I love how it’s so cheerful.” “How did you make those lines?”
WHY? When you ask about the process or praise the result, you direct a child to think about how he created his work and what new approach he might try next time. In short, you praise the artwork, not the child.
SITUATION FIVE: A grandchild performs in a play or recital in public or just for you.
Old praise: “You were fantastic!” “You are so talented!”
New encouragement: “Who taught you how to do that?” “Could you show me how you did that?” “I’d like to hear that again.”
WHY? Showing a genuine interest lets your grandchild relive her bright moments and reminds her of her strengths. It can also reinforce the importance of practice. This approach can cultivate diligence and determination.
SITUATION SIX: Your grandchild succeeds after long effort or struggle, perhaps by pulling himself up on the parallel bars, finishing a large puzzle, or putting her head underwater to swim.
Old praise: “Perfect!” “Sensational!” “That’s our boy!”
New encouragement: “I like how hard you tried.” “You proved you should never give up!”
WHY? Effort-directed compliments send a strong message and avoid the risk of praising an outcome that isn’t fabulous. Children know when they haven’t picked up a new skill as quickly as they might have. If you praise a less-than-perfect performance in too-glowing terms, children start to think they don’t necessarily have to do better or try harder. Instead, they come to feel they are entitled to praise no matter what they do, or that they can just coast along in their activities, assuming credit will still come their way. But then they will be unprepared to cope when it doesn’t.
Of course, sometimes you can’t help yourself when you see a grandchild trying to please you, and some of that old-fashioned praise comes out. Don’t worry — you’re a grandparent and you’re entitled to spoil the kids, a little. But keep in mind that if you praise children excessively or indiscriminately, they’ll stop believing you as they mature. They won’t have faith that you are giving them your honest opinion and start dismissing your praise with comments such as, “Oh, Grandma, you always say that.”
But also remember that heavy doses of the words “I love you” are always good for them. But that you already knew.