Praising Children to Build Self-Esteem

Young Girl Painting

Written by Donna McClintock, COO with Children’s Choice Learning Centers, Inc.

Think about the difference in these two statements:

* “You are such a great artist.”
* “My heart smiles when I look at the picture you drew for me. I see you remembered that the beach is my favorite. The waves look real as they meet the sand, and I love that you remembered the color of our umbrella and chair the last time we were there.”

If you say only the first statement, you are setting your child up to look for outside validation. If you take the time to use specific praise like the second statement, the validation comes from inside the child as she hears you describe how her actions made you feel.

Specific praise takes more effort. It is much easier to take one look at a picture and say, “That is beautiful,” and then move on to your next chore. If you re-read my second statement, you will note that as the child begins to hear what you are saying, she will say to herself, “I am a good artist,” “I did a great job,” or “Mom loves my artwork.” This is your goal.

Think about it: Why do we offer words of praise? Most of us would answer that we want our children to have a healthy self-esteem. However, it is important that we understand how to best accomplish this goal. Positive words are great, but overused praise can make a child feel that he is always being judged.

The University of Minnesota Parenting Resources website has a great article on this subject: Praise That Builds a Child’s Self-Esteem . To give specific praise, describe what you see, what you hear, and how you feel. [1]

  • “I saw that you shared your toys when Mia came to visit today. You made her feel very happy.”
  • “You helped me so much by opening the door, and I also noticed how you helped the woman behind me with her boxes. Did you see the relief in her eyes when you caught that box that was about to fall?”
  • “Today was such a happy day for me because we all got to eat at the restaurant using our manners. I noticed that you had on your listening ears, you used your fork and spoon as we had practiced, and you waited for the adults to finish talking. You were very patient, and I know that you worked hard at it.”
  • “I saw you studying for your spelling test without my reminder. That made me feel so proud because I can see that you are being responsible.”

Our goal as parents is to praise our children in a manner that demonstrates specific reasons the praise is merited so they don’t feel that our love for them is conditional on our approval. This takes a little extra effort, but it is well worth it.

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