Praise vs. Encouragement

Self-esteem as defined in Webster’s Dictionary is “a confidence and satisfaction in oneself.” My older two children grew up in a culture where a child’s self esteem was considered a fragile egg and it was parents’ and society’s responsibility to protect it. They grew up hearing words like “Awesome”, “Good job” and “You’re the best!” They were given trophies and awards for participation and maybe even coming in last. Do these actions and words actually build confidence and satisfaction when either the effort or result was actually mediocre or worse poor? Praise words and phrases can be heard everywhere. Do children really gain self-esteem from over-used praise? There is research now to show us how we as a culture have created a generation of approval junkies.

Let’s now look at the word encouragement. It comes from Old French and it means to make strong, hearten. In our English dictionary it means to inspire with courage. Is that not what we want for our children, to be inspired with courage? So the question then becomes how do we do that? How do we encourage a child? What does that look like? Encouragement can mean showing faith in a person, expressing gratitude, inviting contribution and initiative.

According to Dr. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, research shows that praising intelligence or talent harms both motivation and performance. However when we focus on the effort, we develop a deeper sense of self-awareness and build confidence. So how do we do this?

When a child successfully learns to tie his laces, instead of saying, “Wow! Good job! You are so smart!” Try this: “Learning to tie laces takes time and persistence. I saw how you concentrated to learn all the steps necessary to tie laces and now you can do that for yourself. I wonder what you will work on learning next.”

This takes a lot more time and thought than the normal “Great job!”, but it is so much more meaningful. The power of these statements lies in the fact that her effort can be replicated again. By focusing on the effort, we show him what he is in control of. The late Stephen Covey in his seminal book, 7 Habits for Highly Effective People talks about our Circle of Control and Circle of Concern. When we focus on a child’s effort, we are focus on her circle of control. She is in charge of her effort.

Another reason for encouragement is that it helps children develop a stronger sense of self-awareness. They decide for themselves that they are capable.

Dr. Dweck’s research also showed that children who were told that they were smart or talented later tended togive up or choose easier tasks, while children who were told that they work hard or were persistent chose more challenging tasks.