A 4-year old child walks up to his mother and shows her a piece of paper with lots of giant squiggles on it. His mother looks at the paper and says, “Oh my goodness, what a clever boy you are!”

Another 7-year old child comes home from school with an empty water bottle, shows it proudly to his dad and hears the words, “Good boy! You drank it all!”

These are really common scenarios that we’ve heard before. Honestly, I’ve used the same phrases before too, as a parent. It was only after I discovered the differences between praise and encouragement, that I started to be more sensitive to what I say to my children.

It’s natural that we want to build our child’s self-esteem and worth with our words, but did you know that even the most well-meant praise could bring about unexpected reactions? When we use generic words like “You are good, great, clever, beautiful, fantastic… etc”, we draw attention to the praise-giver as the person giving external gratification. In other words, your child will end up being dependent on you to feel good about himself. If we overuse these words for everything that your child does, it ends up being meaningless after a while. Your child could think, “Do you really mean that?”, “I’m not really that good.”, or even say words like “Clever? Are you kidding?”

On the other hand, encouragement helps children believe in themselves. Their sense of worth is derived from how they feel from the encouragement you give. Praise focuses on the person, but encouragement focuses on the effort. So instead of saying, “Clever boy” to the child with the drawing, you could say, “I love how you have chosen the colours and drawn the lines round and round on the paper!” By being descriptive, we are appreciating the effort the child took on that particular task.

Encouragement takes more effort than praise, because we really need to pay attention, listen and notice, describing aloud what you see and feel. After you encourage them, the child will be more aware of his own strengths and make his own conclusions about how he feels towards himself. Here’s some other examples for you to consider:

After your child completes his homework independently
Instead of: “Good boy, you can now watch TV!”
Say: “I see that you’ve done your work all by yourself! You even figured out that complicated math without my help. Now, that’s what I call, independence!”

As your child is singing his heart out to his favourite song (slightly out of tune)
Instead of: “You’re the best singer in the whole world!”
Say: “Wow, I love the way you sing! You do it with such passion and energy! Your singing makes me happy.”

When your child gives you a hand-made card because you are unwell
Instead of: “What a beautiful card!”
Say: “I love how you drew our family on the front of the card, especially with the red hearts. This card cheers me up, I feel better already.”

When your child agrees to eat that small tiny piece of vegetable on his plate
Instead of: “Good job!”
Say: “Thank you for eating that piece of vegetable even though you didn’t really like it. You were willing to try, and that is being adaptable!”

When your child gets good results from a recent test / assessment
Instead of: “I am so proud of you!”
Say: “You studied really hard for that test. You were disciplined and focused. You must be so proud of yourself!”

When your child finally learns to ride on a 2 wheel bicycle
Instead of: “Smart boy!”
Say: “Even though it took you some time to learn how to ride, and you fell a few times, you finally did it! All your practice paid off!”

If you would like to read more about this topic of Praise vs Encouragement, I recommend this article by Bright Horizons. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

What words of encouragement can do for your child’s development:

  • Recognize and foster continual growth and effort
  • Lessen the chance of comparisons or competition
  • Foster independence with the understanding that intrinsic abilities can achieve needs and wants
  • Emphasize effort, progress, and improvement, rather than focusing on results
  • Recognize contribution rather than completion, or quality over quantity
  • Promote perseverance, rather than giving up, if initial results aren’t as good as expected 
  • Inspire self-concept, as opposed to comparisons.
  • Offer preparation for real-world challenges, where simply showing up won’t earn recognition
  • Build determination and confidence, e.g., “I have the ability to do many things if I work hard,” as opposed to building false self-esteem, e.g., “I am so smart. I can do anything.”
  • Inspire self-sufficiency.

At the end of the day, our children really do care about what we think. The words we say to them will go a long way, into their adulthood. But in the long run, we want them to learn that they do not need the approval of others to feel good about themselves. Remember, all it takes to make the little switch is to pay a little more attention, and then describe what you see and feel.