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Rephrase the Praise

Learning the Language of Encouragement

Your son scores a goal in hockey; you tell him he's the best player on the team. Your daughter learns to ride her bike in a single weekend; you tell her she's the fastest learner on two wheels. Add another heaping helping of praise: Your child eats it up. And you're all too eager to serve second helpings; chances are, no one fed you much encouragement when you were growing up, now did they?

So why are these so-called experts lining up (once again) to rain on your parenting parade?

For starters, because -- despite your best intentions -- you're telling your children that they are great because of what they do, not because of who they are.

And, because they are human beings, not human doings, our praise needs to reflect that.

Praise Efforts, Not Traits

Research by Columbia University psychologist Carol Dweck shows that how and why children receive praise impacts their later development, influencing how they handle challenges or perceived failures. If praised for traits like intelligence, children learn to value performance and are likely to feel helpless in situations where they discover they're not "good at" something. If praised for effort, they learn to appreciate the value of hard work and are more likely to persevere when facing a struggle.

So often, in a culture that stresses achievement over character, and performance over effort, it's easy to forget how to give meaningful praise. Here's how to "rephrase the praise," to acknowledge children with comments that don't just sound good, but make kids feel good!

Praise: "That's the most incredible painting I've ever seen!"

Problem: First of all, it's a lie. It can't possibly be the most incredible picture, and describing it as such sets up a standard for achievement that puts great pressure on a child. ("If Mom thinks this painting is the 'most incredible,' what can I do in art class to wow her next week?")

Rephrase: "I really like the way you used dark red and blue to make the sky. I can almost feel the rain coming down!" This is an observation, not a judgment. It acknowledges a child's effort, not his product.

Another great way to show you value a child's hard work is with a question: "How did you draw the happy smile on the dog's face?"

Praise: "All A's! I'm so proud of you!"

Problem: If you're proud of a child's A's, what will you be proud of when she brings home (God forbid) a C-plus? This type of praise tells a child that what she's done matters more than who she is or how she made the grade.

Rephrase: "I know how hard you worked to get that A in math. Looking back, how do you think you did it?" This simple rephrasing shifts the focus from outcome (good grades) to effort (hard work in math.)

Praise: "You were such a good girl at the dinner table at Grandma's!"

Problem:Is your child only loved or valued when she's "good"? What you really want her to be is well-mannered, polite, and considerate, so praise needs to acknowledge her positive behavior without judging her as a person. (In other words, she can misbehave and still be "good"!)

Rephrase: "I know how hard it is to sit still for such a long time. You did a great job, and I was so pleased to see you trying some foods you usually don't like. Thank you; I'm sure that meant a lot to Grandma."

Praise: "You built that house of blocks all by yourself? You're a genius!"

Problem: This type of praise shows no appreciation for what the child created. It's a hollow, certainly inaccurate comment (chances are, your child is not a genius!) that ignores what the child wants to show you - what he built.

Rephrase:"Look how tall you made the house, and it's still standing! That's not easy to do; how did you get it to stay up?"

Praise: "I'm so proud of you for sharing your bunny."

Problem: The focus is on you, the parent, with a comment like this. In other words, "You have pleased me, and that's what really matters." You want children to share because it makes them feel good, not because it makes you feel good. The child also needs to understand why you found the behavior worthwhile, or at least pay attention to what was involved in that moment of sharing between two children.

Rephrase: "I saw that when you shared the bunny with Billy it made you so happy, because you made him happy by giving him a turn. Sharing feels great, doesn't it?"

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