10 Compliments Your Kids Really Need to Hear

You may be generous with the compliments, but are you saying the right things? Our experts explain how making small changes to how you compliment your child can have a big impact on their self-esteem.

By PJ Feinstein, Reader's Digest

“Great job on the A+!”

When your child earns an A+ on an assignment, it can be hard to stop yourself from exclaiming, “You’re so incredibly smart!” But using strong adverbs and adjectives like “incredibly” or “amazing” can actually have a negative effect on kids, says Nicholas Westers, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist at Children’s Health in Dallas and an assistant professor at UT Southwestern. For children with low self-esteem, he explains, “inflated praise may inadvertently pressure them to perform exceptionally well at all times,” and they may start avoiding more challenging tasks in order to preserve their sense of self.

“You really gave it your all!”

However, the solution isn’t as simple as dropping the adjectives and adverbs. According to Dr. Westers, person-oriented praise, i.e. “You’re so smart!” or “You’re the best!” addresses what kids with low self-esteem perceive as unchangeable traits, such as intelligence or athleticism. “As a result, they may come to believe, ‘If I can do it, I’m smart. Therefore, if I can’t do it, I’m not smart,’” he says. Process-oriented praise, (such as, “I can see how hard you’re trying”) on the other hand, “leads children to later seek challenging tasks because they believe they can meet these realistic expectations.”

“You won the championship! Only one out of 12 teams gets to say that!”

Regardless of their self-esteem, no child should be given more praise than is warranted. “Inflated praise is easily seen for what it is—an exaggeration. It can eventually make our kids either mistrust us or discount what we say as parents,” says Erin Clabough, PhD, author of Second Nature: How Parents Can Use Neuroscience to Help Kids Develop Empathy, Creativity, and Self-Control. When a child with low self-esteem does something well, give accurate praise but give them a boost by commenting on how the external world might see it: “You won the soccer league championship game! Only one team out of 12 gets to say that!”

“You took so many shots on goal!”

Even in the worst situations, something always goes well, says Dr. Clabough. Rather than spending time on what went wrong, look for the positive and compliment your kid for what they did well. “Praise the elements of an action you want to see again whether it’s a win or a loss,” she says. The team might have lost the game, but it was great to watch him or her take a shot at goal four times.

“Great job studying and trying your best”

“It’s great that your grade went up to a B, but I know that you can earn an A if you work harder next time.” Sound familiar? “Praise losses effectiveness when it is coupled with comments that negate the message,” says Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., LMFT. “Following praise with added comments such as ‘…better than you did before,’ ‘…next time you will do even better,’ or ‘…try to be #1 and win next time’ undermines the praise comment and compromises the child’s ability to positively process and integrate feeling good about themselves,” she explains. Instead, try, “Great job studying and trying your best to learn the material.”

“You should feel proud of yourself”

“There’s a difference between telling someone they did a good job and telling someone that they’re a genius,” says Saba Harouni Lurie, licensed marriage and family therapist. Rather than complimenting a child on her brilliance because she got a good grade on a science project, Lurie suggests keeping your compliment grounded in reality: “You did a good job! You worked really hard on this project, and I hope you feel proud of what you have accomplished.” According to Lurie, “Non-inflated praise gives the child the opportunity to feel proud of themselves without feeling pressured to perform at impossibly high standards in the future.”

“You’re helping our home run smoothly”

It may be awesome that your daughter is old enough to empty the dishwasher as part of her daily chores, but you don’t need to be effusive with your compliments. Instead, Wendela Whitcomb Marsh, PhD, author of The ABCs of Autism in the Classroom: Setting the Stage for Success, suggests acknowledging that she did what she was supposed to do without making a big deal out of it. “Lavishing high praise on everyday tasks may seem patronizing,” explains Dr. Marsh. Instead, emphasize the natural consequence of the chore by saying, “I see you emptied the dishwasher, thank you. Now I can put the dirty dishes in so they don’t pile.”

“I can tell you worked hard on this”

It may be easy to exclaim “It’s perfect!” every time your child draws a picture but it’s not in their best interest. “If they believe that everything they do is perfect, even when they don’t try very hard, they may just coast through life expecting to be appreciated for even the feeblest effort,” says Dr. Marsh. An equally easy fix is to make an observation: “I can see that you took your time instead of rushing,” or “I see you put a lot of thought and feeling into your picture.”

“Jack had a great basketball game, and we are so proud of him”

If you’re proud of your child, let other people know—especially when they’re nearby. “An excellent way to build self-esteem in children is to make sure they hear you speaking positively about them,” says Stephanie Leclair, RECE and Curriculum Developer at Tiny Hoppers Daycare. A family Facetime call with grandma and grandpa is an excellent opportunity to boast that your son has been practicing his basketball skills every day after school and, as a result, scored a basket at his last game.

“I love you no matter what”

In addition to giving thoughtful praise, parents should conscientiously tell their children “I love you” on a regular basis. But parents should be mindful to express their love “in a way that communicates their love is unconditional and not attached to anything they do or do not do,” says Dr. Westers. Children should know that they are loved and be treated with kindness regardless of their looks, behaviors, or achievements.
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U.S. Daily News: 10 Compliments Your Kids Really Need to Hear
10 Compliments Your Kids Really Need to Hear
U.S. Daily News
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