Praising and the art of giving feedback – actions speak louder than words

Praising Words on Children

As parents and carers, there are some things we do that we think are ‘right’ and kind, and then we see warnings about doing just these things. It can feel a bit unsettling, but the more we read and understand, the more we can see the sense in the suggestion to do otherwise. Praising our tamariki falls into this category.

Praise seems to roll easily off the tongue – “Good girl”, or “Good boy”, or the more modern, non-gendered counterpart – “Good job”. We say these either on auto-pilot, or because we want to express pleasure at what our child is doing, and we also want them to feel good about who they are. The problem is that praise, or more specially too much of it, doesn’t achieve this last one, and can actually make our children dependent on praise and external feedback. Despite our good intentions, we are setting them up to struggle!

A child raised on a steady diet of praise becomes hungry for it. On the occasions they aren’t praised they feel ‘starved’ and insecure, thinking, “what have I done wrong” because no fanfare is served up. They also look outside of themselves for assurance, rather than listening to, and valuing, that little voice inside them that lets them know they’re trying hard, contributing, or being creative.

Praise can be a real creativity-squasher, in fact. A simple, “I love your painting”, makes for a high chance the child will create a string of replica paintings to please us, and to receive the same acknowledgement. (Eek). It’s not just in artwork either.

The playing-it-safe can extend to their play and activities, and they may only choose the things they know they could be praised for, and avoid anything that maybe won’t elicit the same response. We want our tamariki to dip their toes into all sorts of pursuits to find ‘their thing’(s). And to find joy in engaging, rather than in receiving accolades – after all, the things they love doing won’t necessarily be the things they ‘top the charts’ in.

Not-praising doesn’t mean we don’t chat with, and encourage our tamaiti. It does mean we are more conscious of the feedback we give. Back to the painting example: “Look what you’ve done!” is sharing in their enjoyment without judging their ‘outcome’, or, “you spent such a long time getting every colour on there” is about their process rather than product. When we give more than the reaction of, “good job” (which actually tells a child very little about what they’ve done or why it is appreciated), we can say something that is actually informative: “You were so quick to put on your shoes. Now we can be on time”.

Overpraising can also have an insincere feel to it. Our children may just tune out our voice if it’s repetitive rather than tailored. A spontaneous hug and an “I love your company” means more to a child than the same “you were so good” at the end of every outing. Think, quality of the interaction, over the quantity of times we throw our words out.

Praise is often overused when (and because) we muddle up the source of our children’s self-esteem. If we believe that it is our words that build up our tamaiti’s self-esteem, of course we want to pour on the praise. But, it is actually the child’s own achievements that make them feel really capable and confident. If we want them to feel good about who they are, we don’t have to fill their ears with compliments as much as we fill their little lives with opportunities for independence, autonomy and problem solving. We could say: the child’s actions speak louder than our words!

Childcare that begins and ends with loving care