Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

Intelligent v. Pernicious Praise

Collage image of a happy girl

During a grab-the-camera moment you exclaim to your child, “Good job!”.  Your child beams and you respond with a bear-sized hug.  Is there any good or harm done in this exchange?  If you read the headlines on praising children you may be concerned about the pernicious nature of praise posited by the experts, but should you really withhold your congratulations on a job well done?  Is there a healthy alternative?

Overall, children benefit from occasional praise, but all praise is not equal.  In fact, most of the praise we were taught to use with children undermines their intelligence.  Children, unlike the household pet, comprehend and internalize the meaning and connotation of the words we praise with and not just our tone and intention.  Keep reading to learn how to transform your accolades into intelligent praise, worthy of  your perceptive and remarkable child.

 (Keep in mind that Intelligent Nest’s are balanced nests, meaning that perfect parenting is never the goal.  If you use a traditional praise phrase occasionally, like “good job”, it won’t harm your child.  Just do your best to learn from the suggestions below and give yourself grace with the rest.)

5 Praises Parents Prize and What to Say Instead

1) “Good job!”: The key to effective praise is to focus on quality over quantity.  We love our children and want to convey our affection for them, but are, at times, at a loss for words and so we resort to easy praise phrases.  “Good job!” is a non-descriptive phrase that does not tell a child about what they did other than that you think it is good.   It focuses on your opinion and teaches your child to work for external instead of internal rewards.

Intelligent Praise:

It is important to nurture a child’s ability to internally motivate themselves through self-assessment.  It can be beneficial to occasionally opine, but most often praise should come in the form of a non-judgmental statement.  When your child wants you to comment on something they did, narrate what you see (“I see you used red paint”) and then ask your child, “What do you think?”.  Most often when your child wants to show you something (art work, tower of blocks, new trick, etc…) their base need is to connect with you and not to obtain your approval.  Most of the time, your child already thinks what they did is great, otherwise they wouldn’t be showing you.   Focus your praise on one specific aspect of what your child did well, especially highlighting characteristics and qualities that they demonstrated.  For instance, “You tried again and this time you succeeded!”.

2) “Good boy!” or “Good girl!”:  When you want to affirm your child, be sure that you praise the action and not the person.  A study out of Temple University found that praising the person, instead of the process, causes children to become less likely to be willing to take on challenges in the future.  Combining the word “good” with boy or girl creates a phrase that comments on your child’s entire being as opposed to their performance.  If these phrases are used enough, it can create unnecessary pressure for the child to always perform well, and thus be the “good” boy or girl.  Children are human and cannot always be good.  They need to be free to explore and face their imperfections from a young age.  Avoid putting your child in the “good” box and just let them be themselves, imperfectly perfect.

Intelligent Praise:

 Say, “You did it!”.  Now say it again and again, “You did it!”.  This is your go-to phrase for praise.  It acknowledges the child, but is open ended and allows the child to interpret just what they did right.  There is no judgment passed and it is enthusiastic.   It will take some time for you to learn to replace the pernicious praise phrases, but you will eventually develop the habit.  If you slip up and use one of the pernicious phrases, don’t kick yourself.  I have been practicing for 12 years and still occasionally forget.  We do what we know and it is hard to kick bad habits.  Have grace with yourself and do your best.

3) “Superb!”: Routinely inflating the value of your child’s performance can be damaging, especially for children with low self-esteem.  A recent study out of Ohio State University found that children with low self-esteem are aware when adults inflate their praise and it can lead them to becoming overly risk adverse, meaning they avoid taking on challenges because they assume they will fail.  They know your inflated praise is undeserved and they want to be worthy of your accolades and so they pick projects that have a certain positive outcome.  Children understand enough about the world to know that everything that they do is not always superb.

Intelligent Praise:

Respect your child’s intelligence and offer honest, yet positive, feedback.  If your child really did a tremendous job, it is OK to tell them, but if they just did just an OK job, while trying their best, then focus on praising for them for what they really did well (in this case it is trying their best).  You can say, “You tried your best!”.  Use narration and you’ll be on the right track.  When in doubt use the phrase, “You did it!”.  You can also use, “What do you think?” to encourage them to problem solve.

4) “You are so smart.”  Commenting on a child’s intelligence most often backfires, and recent studies have shown this is especially true for children with above average intelligence.  As with the phrase “good boy” or “good girl”, “you are so smart” comments on a child’s being as opposed to his behavior.  Being told you are smart by an adult pressures, instead of encourages, the child.  Once you are dubbed as smart, then there is pressure to continue being smart, meaning that there is little room for error.  Smart children can develop perfectionist tendencies and often shut down after being told that they are smart.  They tend to avoid challenges because they crave success, praise and approval.

Intelligent Priase:

Use descriptive praise to comment specifically on what your child did well.  It’s not that they are so smart, it is that what they did was smart.  You can say, “You figured out that problem!” or  “You made a logical deduction!”.  Again, narrate what you see your child doing as opposed to what you think about them.  Consider the phrase, “You are so smart” to be a four lettered word.  It is much more pernicious than the other praise phrases and it should not be used.

5) “You are so beautiful!”:  Beauty is only skin deep.  Children who are routinely praised for their beauty begin to believe that this is who they are and that beauty is their best and only asset.  Girls desire to be beautiful and there is nothing damaging with the occasional intelligent praise for their physical attributes, but when you connect the phrase “you are beautiful” with a physical attribute children learn that this is what makes them beautiful instead of their inner-qualities being the source of their true beauty and worth.

Intelligent Praise:

Instead, connect beauty to a positive quality that your child demonstrated.  For instance, “You are so beautiful.  You shared your favorite toy with your friend.”  This teaches your child that beauty is an inner quality instead of just an outer quality.  When you feel it is absolutely necessary to praise one of your child’s physical features, say “you look beautiful” instead of “you are beautiful”.  When you child engages in dress up and wants to show off her gown you can narrate, “Your gown is pink!  I see the ruffles and frills!”.  For more specifically on nurturing healthy girls, see Intelligent Nest’s article on Princess Syndrome.

Practice makes perfect parents!  Try out some of your new intelligent praise phrases and give yourself room for mistakes when you forget.  You can do it!

Happy baby with red umbrella


2 Responses to “Intelligent v. Pernicious Praise”

  1. Emma

    Great article! Loved the practical tips on what to do instead.


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