Encouraging our Children

Written by Christine Jordan, Ed.S., LMFT

Take a moment and imagine yourself as a child. It can be at any age or time in your childhood. Listen to a few statements that a parent might say to you. 

  • "I am so proud of you."
  • "I like what you did."
  • "You did it just like I told you"

As you imagine a parent saying this to you, what decisions would you make about yourself? Now listen to three other possible statements a parent might say.

  • "You must be proud of yourself."
  • "You worked hard."
  • "You figured it out for yourself."

What decisions do you think that you would make about yourself when hearing these statements? The first statements involved praise and might have made you feel as if you are loved conditionally or pressured to live up to an adult's expectation. The second set of statements, which are more encouraging, might have made you feel empowered and loved unconditionally. You might have made other decisions about yourself, as well. As parents, we want to encourage our children in a way that they feel empowered and able to feel confident in their own capabilities.

Research conducted by Carol Dweck, PhD, a professor of psychology at Stanford University showed that praising children discourages them from taking risks. Her research found that when children were praised for being smart, they are more likely to choose less challenging tasks in order to avoid making mistakes. Children in this research who were encouraged for their effort were more likely to choose more challenging tasks and outperformed those children praised for their intelligence. 

If we can focus more on encouraging, and less on praising, we will empower our children. However, changing what we say to children to sound less like praise can feel awkward and difficult in the beginning. Understanding the differences between praise and encouragement can help. Here are some ways to change a statement of praise into one of encouragement. 

Take the "I" out of it. Change the focus from what you think to what the child thinks. Changing "I am so proud of you" to "What do you think about your 'A' in science?" allows your child to take ownership of his own accomplishment. Using encouragement in this way helps children to develop self-confidence and self-reliance. 

Put the focus on the effort. When we encourage, the focus shifts from the child to what the child is doing. Rather than praising a child by saying, "Good boy, your room is clean," focus on the child's deed by saying, "Your hard work really shows in your clean room." This helps your child to reflect on and evaluate his own effort without relying on other people's approval. When things don't go so well, the encouraged child is more likely to focus on his own thoughts and feelings about his effort without focusing only on disappointing a parent.

Think about what you would say to another adult. Thinking about how you encourage other adults can help when encouraging a child. We probably would not tell a coworker, "I'm glad you did as I told you to do." We would probably be more inclined to say, "What do you think about how it went?"

Using encouragement more than praise is a useful tool to help our children to develop the characteristics and values that we want to instill in them. 

Provided by staff who are part of Brenner FIT (Families in Training). Brenner FIT® is a pediatric weight management program at Brenner Children's that helps families create healthier lifestyles together. Brenner FIT offers free cooking, nutrition and parenting classes.