Words are one of our most powerful weapons. It is no mistake that even our constitution protects our ability to speak our mind. Our words have power over our children. We have the power to build up, and to tear down. We can inspire, or discourage. Sometimes we are unaware of how we are discouraging our children, and the things we say with good intentions, have the opposite effect. Praise and encouragement may sound like the same thing to you, but let me show you the difference, as well as their significance.
Praise is “the act of expressing approval or admiration.” When we praise our child for doing something, we are expressing our approval of them. You might be wondering what is so wrong with that? Over time this creates a child who does things just to please you. Eventually, they will transfer the desire to please you, with the desire to please their peers, a boyfriend or girlfriend, or others in their life. This can cause them to steer away from your values and make choices you will no longer praise. Praise is also focused on the end product, rather than the effort. When it comes to school, not every child is an “A” student. For some, earning a “B” in math is a huge accomplishment and that needs to be recognized. Praise is a short-term, extrinsic motivator. We want to build an intrinsic motivator in our children that drives them towards working hard, and making improvements.
One of the most common mistakes made by teachers and parents is to tell students, “You’re so smart!” It may seem like an innocent enough comment, but what does it mean when they fail the next test? Are they still smart, or have they lost that valuable label? If students are afraid of failing, they are less willing to try. When their value remains the same regardless of performance, students are more likely to put in effort to learn new things and try challenging tasks. Labels can be easily changed from positive to negative, so you want to avoid placing labels on your child or student.
So, how do we strengthen that intrinsic motivation and avoid labeling? We do it through encouragement; the word that means “the action of giving someone support, confidence, or hope.” We want to instill courage in our students; courage to try new things, work harder, hope for more, and even to fail! When we encourage our children we are focusing on the effort and improvement, rather than the end product. This simple act will build up an internal guide that empowers them to make better choices and work to accomplish their goals.
When we say things like, “Wow, you worked really hard on that project, you must be proud!” we are recognizing the effort put into the work. “That’s a tough one, but I know you can do it” instills confidence in their abilities. “It might not have worked perfectly this time, but you worked hard. What did you learn that can help you next time?” makes it safe to “fail” because it wasn’t wasted time or effort. “I see you love art” encourages them to enjoy what they are doing, regardless of skill or outcome.
When you are at a loss for how to use encouraging words rather than praise, consider this guide (adapted from Positive Parenting Solutions):
Describe what you see and feel- I can see you really enjoy_________; you did a really thorough job on__________; look at those bright colors!
Sum up it up in a word- You really persevered; That shows leadership, creativity, friendship, etc.
Recognize effort and improvement- You really put a lot of time into that! That took a lot of effort!
Show confidence- I believe in your abilities, you’re right on track, you’ve got this, etc.
This subtle shift in our focus and words can make a really big difference in our children! We love them for who they are, it’s time to show that through our words of encouragement.
Positive Parenting Solutions online course (www.positiveparentingsolutions.com) was a huge resource for writing this article. They also recommend a few other resources for further reading on this topic:
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber & Mazlish
Mind-set, the New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck
Dictionary definitions from www.dictionary.com