Praise is a powerful instrument, especially when delivered from parents to their kids. Although some teens may go to great lengths to appear otherwise, they thrive on parent approval. Parental praise has byproducts, as teens are likely to seek out opportunities to repeat the praiseworthy behavior.
There’s no itemized list of good and bad praises, and let’s not inject unnecessary worry or strategy into parental expressions of admiration towards their kids. But there are two particular types of praise that can actually have the opposite of their intended effect:
1. Praising intelligence
“You’re so smart” certainly has a nice ring to it—who wouldn’t want to hear that? But in addition to praising something the student had virtually nothing to do with (intelligent kids should be praising their parents for passing on good genes), the bigger issue is that research has shown that praising kids for innate abilities, such as their intelligence, actually makes it less likely that they’ll grow up to enjoy learning and to excel.
When an intellectual challenge eventually presents itself, students who identify as intelligent can panic. This is one of the reasons so many students who attend highly selective colleges suffer from impostor syndrome on arrival. It’s a rude awakening to find out on day one that your former moniker as “the smartest kid in class” no longer applies.
A few alternatives: Praise their curiosity, effort, or willingness to take on challenging subjects. Those are repeatable behaviors regardless of how readily the student can understand what’s being presented.
2. Comparative praising
“You scored the most points,” or “You were the best soloist tonight,” or “You got the highest grade in the class!” are praises based on comparison. The message they give your student is that to be praiseworthy, someone else needs to be less praiseworthy. Nobody’s suggesting that we should divide our praise equally among every participant. But your student’s not always going to be the top scorer, performer, or achiever. To set them up for future success, praise the traits that put them in those positions: their hard work, commitment to their goals, willingness to take on challenges, etc.
When in doubt, praise away. If your worst crime as a parent is that you praised often but not perfectly, that’s a pretty great track record. But if we can be mindful about what we’re praising, our kids will be more likely to continue doing those very things that earned our praise and their pride.