As parents, we want to lift our children up, bolster their self-esteem and encourage good behavior. Praise is one of the most basic ways we signal our approval and nurture our children’s confidence and sense of self.

By using praise, you’re showing your child how to think and talk positively about themselves. You’re helping your child learn how to recognize when they do well and feel proud of themselves.

However, there are right ways and wrong ways to praise our child and it’s important to be mindful of our words of encouragement an how they may be received.

Children will accept positive comments only if they’re consistent with their self-image. Unconditional praise and approval (“You’re such a great kid.”) is only constructive when a child has a positive self-image. This type of general praise backfires with wounded children who have negative core beliefs. Unconditional messages of praise contradict this child’s views of themselves, and two negative reactions may result:

  1. You lose your credibility (“You are stupid; you don’t know the real me.”)
  2. Your child’s acting out increases (“I’ll show you how wrong you are.”).

Consider your approach to praising your child and keep these basic rules in mind when you want to give them words of encouragement:

  • Praise the behavior, not the child. Give your child praise and approval for specific actions, attitudes and tasks completed. For example, say, “I like the way you cleaned the kitchen table — thanks for pitching in,” rather than something less specific and defined, such as, “You’re such a great kid.”
  • Make sure your praise is genuine. Never praise your child if you don’t mean it. He or she can tell when you are faking it. Do not praise for the sake of praising because this dilutes the significance of truly deserved praise. Make sure your tone and body language match your words.
  • Don’t overpraise or provide exaggerated praise – While you may be tempted to be overly enthusiastic when you are praising your child, saying something like “Your drawing is the most beautiful drawing I’ve ever seen!” puts your credibility at risk, especially with the wounded child.
  • Find some behavior to praise. It is easy to be pessimistic and critical with challenging children, but it is best to focus on the positive. Noticing and validating little successes eventually lead to bigger successes. Catch your child doing something right and well!


A recent article in Parenting for Brain provides some helpful examples of effective words of encouragement versus those that might backfire.

“You came up with an excellent answer for the last question.”“You’re a genius for solving that problem! (“Genius? I only got one out of three questions!”
“It’s generous of you to share your cookie.”“What an angel you are!” (“I’m an angel for sharing a cookie? What about not doing homework last night?”)
“The colors you chose for this drawing are really beautiful.”“What an awesome painting!”
You came up with a thoughtful answer and really nailed that question!“Great job!”
“I’ve been watching you try to tie your shoelaces for a long time now. It’s tricky isn’t it? I’m so proud that you kept trying and didn‘t give up though and now you can do it.”“You did it!”
“You are good at trying different ways to solve a hard puzzle.”You are such a great puzzle-solver!
“Giving your friend your favorite toy was a very generous thing to do.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you. I’m sure your dad will really appreciate that you brought everything in from the care without being asked to.”
“You’re being such a good friend by helping Jane with that difficult task.”
“Thank you for thinking of your sister.”
“You gave very good advice to your friend.”
“I noticed how kind you were being to your grandmother when she was upset. Your compassion for others is wonderful.”
You’re a great kid!
“You must be really disappointed. But I liked the way you put a lot of energy into your swing. I bet you’ll get it one of these times.”“That was a great try,” after failing at something. (“You must be really disappointed.”) followed by praise of a specific behavior (“I liked the way you put a lot of energy into your swing.”) and encouragement (“I bet you’ll get it one of these times.”).
“This is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it, yet.”“This is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it.”