Wholeness Healing Today

Praise and How to Make it Effective

Most people would agree that praising our children is important. But what many don’t realize is that praise can be detrimental to our children. In fact, the wrong kind of praise may actually be counter-productive.

When I first began teaching, I taped the word “PRAISE” to my lectern, reminding me to work to help develop my students’ self-esteem. What I didn’t know at the time, but later learned with foster children passing through my home, is that praise needs to be specific and geared toward a definite act or accomplishment. There are ways to make praise more effective and to allow children to internalize the praise, thereby increasing their self-esteem.

Research by Alfie Kohn and Carol Dweck has revealed that praise can actually have a negative effect on children, resulting in less motivation to excel rather than more. Georgia Argyle in “The Value of Praise Revisited” writes, “Children hear generalized praise and begin to develop a false understanding of intelligence and learning.” This may be in part because children know how well they are doing, and if they are praised for something that could have been done better, the message is that either the parents are not intelligent enough to recognize quality or they are not being honest in praising something that is less than quality.

Insincere or unearned praise can be counter-productive for “normal” healthy children, and it can produce even more harm to children who lack healthy attachment. One consequence of giving praise when it truly isn’t earned is that kids with attachment issues may then sabotage to prove the adults wrong. This goes directly to their sense of self-worth. For example, if a parent praises a child for being “good all day” and the child knows that he/she only did the chores ½ way, sabotage may follow, as the child doesn’t feel as if he/she is good and so sets out to prove the adult wrong. That is precisely why praise needs to be specific.

By giving only specific praise (I like how you put the trash bag in the can.) rather than general (You do chores well.), children seem much more able to accept the praise, thus internalizing it.

Nancy Thomas, in “Parenting Children With Attachment Disorders” in Handbook of Attachment Interventions suggests that self-esteem comments are more powerful and more quickly absorbed if children hear parents talking to someone else about them rather than delivering the praise directly to them, such as commenting about a child to a grandparent.

Praise, if used effectively, can help improve motivation and self-esteem. However, if parents assume the responsibility of making their children’s sense of self-worth, they need to be prepared to fail, as self-worth comes from within. Parents need to be able to use praise in such a way as to aid and guide their children, not further hinder their internalization.

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  • Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
    Licensed Professional Counselor
    Advanced Clinical HypnoTherapist

  • Deb England began working part-time for Wholeness Healing Center in September 2004 and began full-time in May 2005. Deb practices primarily in the Broken Bow office and one day a week in the Grand Island office. Previously she had completed her practicum and internship at Morning Star Alliance, working in the Broken Bow and Grand Island offices.


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