“Concrete, specific praise works best.”

Part of an occasional series about phrases that this therapist finds himself repeating, often.

As a clinician in private practice, one of the phrases that I frequently hear myself saying to parents is “Concrete, specific praise works best”. This usually follows a parent who is bringing in a child who presents with anger, anxiety, or sadness. The child in question usually makes statements such as:

“I always mess up.”

“I can’t do anything right.”

“I’m stupid.”

To which the parents respond, “I don’t know what is going on. We praise them all the time! All the time we are telling them how smart and wonderful and talented they are!”

Then I pause and say, “Let me tell you about some interesting research …”

Yes, praise is good.

Children care about what the adults in their lives think about them. One of the ways in which they make sense of their world and their ability to make their way in that world is what we tell them.

Especially in the early years, they believe what we say. So if we tell them that they are the cutest, smartest kid out there, they believe us. But what we are actually trying to communicate to our child is that we love them, not that they are the best child in the world … ever! Telling our child we love them is true; telling them that they are the BEST CHILD EVER is a lie.

Self-esteem is WAY overrated.

The term “self-esteem” gets used and overused. Self-esteem simplified is our feeling about our selves based on external praise. Self-esteem is malleable; it changes. Self-esteem is based on your internal feelings about yourself based on someone else’s external appraisal.

So what if you’ve told your child that they are the smartest/best/fastest and someone else makes a better grade, turns in a better project, or finishes the race ahead of your child?

If your child believed you, then now they think that they are a fraud … or that you are a liar … or both!

Another concept is self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is self-worth based on what you have measurably achieved. Self-efficacy is not based on what someone felt about you, but on efforts that you can see, touch, feel, smell, and/or taste. Self-efficacy emphasizes choice and consequences for your choices. Ability is not some sort of innate, immutable quality, but something that requires effort, progress, and choice.

“I was able to run a whole mile!”

“I built the entire lego set by myself without help!”

Praise effort and progress instead.

So building a child’s self-efficacy is not about praising who they are, but about what they do. This begins to tap into their own internal “locus of control”. You are teaching your child that their effort and work matter. This means that you are not only telling them that the picture that they colored is “beautiful”, but also noting that you particularly like the shading on the clown on the left. You remind them that they are getting better at staying in the lines of the drawing. You comment that it took a long time to color the whole picture: “I’m glad you stuck with it!”

You are not telling them that they have to be perfect, but that good work takes effort, failure, and trying again.

So what does “concrete and specific praise” sound like?

Instead of telling them that they are “the best soccer player ever”, say “I can tell you were working really hard today to get the ball down the field, especially in the second half.”

When they are cleaning their room, don’t tell them that they are “the most amazing cleaner in the world”; instead, be honest that cleaning their room is hard but you can tell that even though they got frustrated, they kept going. “I can really tell you worked hard on lining up your books!”

Instead of telling them that they are “so smart”, praise them for the extra time and effort that they used to study for the exam. Remind them that our brains are like muscles in a way, requiring effort in order to grow.

When you use words that emphasize growth, effort, and “concrete and specific praise” children begin to feel more power to succeed. Qualities like “smartest” or “strongest” or “best” represent qualities that one simply has; these qualities are a gift, not something for which one has worked.

Concepts such as “self-efficacy”, having an “internal locus of control”, and “resiliency” teach us that children who learn their effort leads to growth are better able to manage adversity. They are better problem-solvers because making mistakes and learning are part of the process.

And if you do hear comments like “I’m stupid”, don’t argue with them (because then they will think of reasons why they are “stupid”). Gently remind them that we all make mistakes. “I wonder what we can get out of this one …?”

Remember to give “concrete and specific praise” so that your child learns that growth is the goal, that life is a process, and that they will fail … and learn.

clinical social worker, spiritual director, author, husband, father, son, runner in Georgia, co-author of When Anxiety Strikes from Kregel Publications.

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