Let’s talk about how to compliment kids because not all praise is equal. Scientific research shows us the best methods.
I get excited watching my children succeed at something. As parents, we want to lift up their self-esteem and promote confidence. Brain research has shown the most effective way to compliment a child, and it might not be what you think.
How We Often Compliment Kids
We often observe people complimenting children on their innate abilities. Compliments like, “You are so smart,” or “You are so talented,” roll off the tongue easily as we observe a child with exceptional abilities. However, research has shown that there is a better way to compliment your children.
Parents want to see their children succeed. Our desire is to help them grow the gifts they are given. We are willing to cart them to all their practices, teach them, develop skills alongside them and pay for music, theatre, or sports. Helping them find and develop their skills and passions is a huge part of the parenting journey.
As we watch them grow, we also want to encourage them in a way that truly speaks to their soul. What if there is a better way to compliment a child than what you are used to hearing or saying?
How to Compliment Kids
“What you praise defines what your child perceives success to be.” This quote was written by Dr. John Medina, author of the book, “Brain Rules For Babies.” (affiliate link) He is a leading expert in brain development research and encourages us to praise effort rather than ability.
The compliments I mentioned earlier focus on praising their innate ability rather than the effort they are putting forth. When you compliment their natural abilities, they begin to associate how easy things come with how smart or talented they are. They associate their music performance with a natural talent. Being athletic is something they simply inherited from their parents.
While some of that can be true, we want our kids to associate their successes with both their natural abilities AND the effort they put in pursuing their passions.
If a child is complimented only on their innate ability, when they run into challenges or things that require effort, they begin to doubt themselves and feel discouraged quickly. They often quit trying because they believe that they simply are not naturally good enough.
Complimenting a child only on their natural skill can be associated with why you see a child who does amazing in school and then suddenly their grades fall apart. Perhaps you have seen a talented athlete who runs up against some failures and then doesn’t want to keep going in their sport.
What the Science Says about Complimenting Kids
If you praise a child’s innate ability, three things happen:
- They see their mistakes as failures due to lack of ability.
- They become more concerned with how they appear on the outside rather than actually learning something.
- They are less willing to make efforts because there is too much at stake if they fail.
The solution is simple. Praise their efforts. Instead of saying, “You are so smart,” say, “ You must have studied really hard for that test. I’m so proud of you.”
Instead of saying, “You are so talented at soccer,” say, “I have noticed how much effort you are putting in at practice. I’m so proud of your hard work. It really shows!”
Success then becomes tied to effort and something within their control. “Kids regularly praised for effort successfully complete 50-60% more hard math problems than kids praised for intelligence” (pg. 141). They consistently score higher in school as well as in laboratory studies.
Kids will enjoy more of a challenge and put in more effort as they associate their successes with their efforts rather than their innate ability.
The Dangers of Only Complimenting Kids on Their Efforts
Compliments are tricky. You want them to be meaningful and effective. Obviously the scientific research shows us how to compliment kids – compliment effort rather than ability.
That said, if we get too out of balance there, kids can start to associate their value with their works and accomplishments….and yet there is value to work and accomplishment. So there’s a rub there as a parent.
On top of complimenting kids on their hard work, it is important to focus on their innate worth.
They were “wonderfully and fearfully” made. Their value isn’t tied up in their performances. Rather, they are loved because of who they are on the inside and just because.
You, my child, are worthy because God says it is true. My kids have been raised with the phrase, “I love you to the moon and back…forever and always…no matter what.” They need to know that no matter what part to understand their worth and identity as a human.
Another Way to Compliment Children
Beyond talking about the accomplishments you see because of their hard work and their innate worth, it is important for them to know that you see their heart. In looking at their heart, I love to praise their character.
Here are some phrases that focus on character:
- You are kind.
- You are thoughtful.
- You are loving.
- You are patient.
- You are valued.
- You are honest.
Speak truth into who they are and the character you see coming out of them. I would try and find specifics too. “You are kind. I saw how you noticed that child who needed a friend at the park. That is a very nice thing to do.”
Try and catch your kids being good. Let them know you see them.
How to Compliment Your Kids
I think the solution is well-rounded praises that:
- Let them know their innate value.
- Compliment them on their hard work and tie it to their positive results.
- Show that you find their inward self just as important as the outward displays.
Note: This post was originally written in 2012. It was updated and re-published in 2022.