We gain self-esteem by setting a goal, working hard towards that goal and feeling a sense of accomplishment once it’s been achieved. So, while it’s important to give your child praise, it’s even more important if he learns to recognize his own efforts and to feel good about the end result. Your praise can help motivate your child, but you need to think about the words that you are using. To help your child develop the important ability to self-praise and thus, develop good self-esteem, consider the following:
Make sure you are being clear about what it is you are praising. For example, instead of saying “You behaved so well in the grocery store,” make a more specific comment such as, “You were so patient while we waited in that long check-out line. I really appreciate that.” By being clear about what he did well, you can reinforce his good behavior and increase the likelihood that he’ll repeat this action.
For longer, more complicated, or multi-step activities, you might want to help him set realistic steps and give him positive feedback as he nears his goal. Be sure to use specific descriptive feedback that lets him know which actions are causing you to offer praise. You want to note your child’s progress and efforts and to help him see how his efforts are paying off. Comments like “I can tell how much you’ve been practicing” is a sure way to keep your child motivated.
It is important that you are giving sincere praise. The key is to be genuine and to avoid saying things like “You’re the best soccer goalie ever!”, because your child will instinctively know that this is not the truth and will start doubting other praises you give him.
Related to the effort to give sincere praise is that you should also do your best to avoid over-the-top compliments such as repeatedly saying “You’re so smart, you’re so pretty, your picture is perfect, etc.” This kind of comment does little to help motivate and again, over time, could lead your child to doubt himself. Instead, try to praise your child for the effort rather than his natural talents, emphasizing what he has control over and the abilities he can strive to improve upon.
Focus on the process rather than the outcome. For example, if your child is working on a project, let him know that you notice his effort to get the job done as opposed to waiting until he has finished and commenting on the final piece. For some children, it may take several attempts for them to get the job done or to get it done the way they wanted. This is particularly true for the child who has learning and/or attention issues. You can help him to stick with the project by noting his efforts, rather than commenting on the final work itself.
Avoid comparing your child’s work or skill to his sibling's or friend's. This can lead to him doubting his own abilities, avoiding competition, and it could affect his motivation and resilience. Praise your child’s skill rather than focusing on how he “stacked up” against his peers.
Do, however, emphasize how his efforts and actions affect other people. You can let him know how his action made you feel, or point out how something he did affected another family member by. Show your child that you notice his efforts and the affect he had on others, and he will feel like a valued family or group member.
Do help your child to express his feelings. Sometimes, a younger child may need help in identifying and owning his own accomplishments. He may need help in expressing his emotions about something he has achieved. One way to do this is to pair praise with an acknowledgement in a comment such as, “I’m so proud of you for working so hard to ace your math test” or “you must feel really great that all of your hard work paid off.”
By paying attention to the words you use when giving praise, you can help your child to self-actualize, to stay motivated, to gain positive self-esteem, and to continue to grow and develop in positive ways that are sure to benefit him throughout his school years and well beyond.