How to praise kids for effort
Published by Larissa Dann 28th August, 2014
This blog examines that very common parenting phrase (used innocently and with the best of intentions) – “I’m proud of you”. What are the implications of the word ‘proud’? How might our children perceive this form of praise?
Some years ago I attended a parenting seminar, where the speaker incidentally mentioned trying to avoid saying “I’m proud of you”. For me, this was a huge take-away moment. How often did I say this to my children? Had I ever thought about the meaning behind these words? What would replace this oh-so-common parenting expression?
Here are three reasons I avoid saying “I’m proud of you”
- Who ‘owns’ the achievement? (our pride is generally around an achievement).
A Macquarie Dictionary definition of ‘proud’ is: “feeling pleasure or satisfaction over something conceived as highly honourable or creditable to oneself”. The key words (for this discussion) are ‘creditable to oneself’. So – when a parent says, “I’m so proud of you”, is the parent taking the credit for the child’s accomplishments?
Let’s look at some examples – adult and child, to help illustrate this point:
Manager: “I’m so proud of the report you’ve written”.
How might you feel as the worker? You could feel annoyed and put out. After all, you were the one who put the effort into writing the report – you did the research, you put the paper together. Why is your manager taking credit for the work you put into the report? You could also feel patronised. Didn’t your manager think you were capable of putting such a report together?
Parent: “I’m so proud that you got all A’s in your school report/won that tennis trophy”
How might you feel as the child? Who put in the hard hours to get a good report? Who put in the practice in order to win that tennis match? (Now, in both cases – you could say the parent. The parent might have helped the child complete their homework – or even do the child’s assignments! The parent might have spent hours coaching and practising tennis with their winning child. If this is true – then of whom is the parent really proud?).
Of course, the child may feel really pleased to hear this positive evaluation of their efforts. Which brings me to my next point.
2. “Proud’ as praise – an external judgement of someone else’s achievements.
Linda Adams, in her book “Be Your Best”, quotes Charleszetta Waddles (African American activist): “You can’t give people pride, but you can provide the kind of understanding that makes people look to their inner strengths and find their own sense of pride”.
What are we trying to say or do, when we innocently, and with the best of intentions, praise our children with “I’m proud of you”? We are probably trying to encourage our children, and even instil in them a sense of pride in their own achievements. However, is this what happens?
“I’m proud of you” could be seen as an external judgement – a parent’s judgement of a child’s achievement. The child has done well enough for the parent to bring out the big guns – the ‘proud’ word. Praise such as this is a subject on its own – much research and many, many books have been written on the subject. Briefly, some difficulties include:
- Praise does not help bring up children who have an internal belief in themselves, of self-worth. As described in the quote above, someone else’s pride in you does not usually translate to pride in yourself.
- If a parent can say, “I’m proud of you”, then can the parent also say the opposite, such as “I’m disappointed in you”? Imagine this: a 4 year old child shows his Mum a painting, and is met with “Good boy. I’m so proud of your painting!!”. The child decides to replicate his painting (to get more praise, not necessarily because he enjoys painting that picture), and looks up at his mother with rapturous expectation. He gets a “that’s nice”. By the fifth replication, the response may be rather different than the first (“I’m disappointed that this is the same picture”)! And the child is left feeling confused and despondent.
- Children may become dependent on their parents’ (and others) evaluation of their achievements. If your child continually asks you “Are you proud of me?”, does this mean your child is becoming reliant on your judgement of what they do? This may result in adults who rely constantly on others for validation, unable to take pride in who they are and what they have achieved.
3. Implies superiority/patronising.
The phrase “I’m proud of you” implies that the speaker has more experience, or power, or in some manner has the right to pronounce their opinion on the child’s effort. The effect of this praise might be opposite to the aim of the parent. Rather than the child feeling respected for their efforts, they may feel patronised, put-down. A person receiving this praise could also feel belittled – it could feel as though their achievement was unexpected – a surprise to the other person.
Alternatives to saying “I’m proud of you”.
There are alternatives to praise, and saying “I’m proud of you”, and they include:
- “Wow!! I’m so impressed!”
- “You must be so proud!!”
- “I’m proud for you”
- “I’m so pleased for you”
- “You look really pleased with your effort”
I would avoid “well done” or “good job” – for all the reasons of “I’m proud of you”. Courses such as Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.), which helps develop positive and respectful parent-child relationships, teaches skills for avoiding praise.
Personally, I find it a struggle to avoid these phrases, and often have to stop myself as “I’m so proud of you” is about to trip off my tongue. I believe the effort has been worth it – for my children, and our relationship.
© Larissa Dann. 2014. All rights reserved