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By "Today" contributor
updated 5/5/2006 4:29:17 PM ET 2006-05-05T20:29:17

In the latest installment from "Today" show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters' book,  “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” she shares advice on making praise appropriate for your kids. Here's an excerpt:

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Law #18:
Make Praise Appropriate, Not Addictive

Praise is like frosting on a cake. A little makes it taste better and too much will ruin everything. Kids need your encouragement and love it when you recognize their accomplishments. Just don’t ruin their trust by leading them to believe every little thing they do is worthy of adoration and a chorus of cheers. When they find out otherwise, they’ll be crushed and probably blame you for making them so needy of approval.

Recently, I had the opportunity to observe one of my families, 5-year-old Joshua and his parents, in action. They had arrived at my office about 15 minutes early, and having returned from lunch with a few minutes to spare, I was chatting with my secretary in the waiting room. As I was gathering my things to walk back to my private office, I was taken aback by a series of Joshua’s mother’s comments. The kid was playing with some blocks on the floor, and Mom was emitting a running commentary on his progress. “Oh, Joshua, that’s such a nice stack of blocks. You are so smart,” followed by “What a great job. I couldn’t have built that when I was your age.” Then Dad added to the drivel with some that’s-my-boy, chip-off-the-old-block statements that nearly caused my secretary to gag. After all, the kid was 5 years old, and stacking up a few wooden blocks is not a great achievement. You would have thought that Joshua had discovered a cure for the common cold by the way his folks were carrying on. No wonder he was having problems following directions in kindergarten — no teacher would be able to give him the amount of attention and praise necessary to keep the child motivated.

What is wrong with praising a child? Actually, a lot if it’s given inappropriately. Most of us have evolved as parents believing that giving praise is like eating calorie-free chocolate — the more the better. But new research suggests that complimenting children in certain ways may set them up to become praise junkies — looking to their parents or others for validation of almost every act or feeling, rather than developing an internal barometer for self-esteem and feelings of accomplishment and achievement.

Recent psychological study findings are quite straightforward and to the point — kids need praise to guide the development of such characteristics as self-control, self-discipline, frustration tolerance and perseverance. But studies recently completed through the Department of Psychology at Columbia University in New York City note that the manner in which children are praised as well as what they are praised for makes a significant difference in how they later fare when faced with challenges or perceived failures.

The results suggest that kids who are praised for effort and hard work begin to value learning opportunities, whereas children who are praised for their abilities value performance. The studies showed that praising a child for a personal characteristic such as intelligence (“Aren’t you smart. I can count on you for getting an A on your reports!”) can often backfire. The researchers noted that kids given praise that evaluates the child or their traits and abilities (known as person praise) were significantly more likely to display helpless reactions (cognitions, affects, and behaviors) when they were later challenged with more difficult tasks than children who received effort or strategy praise (“Wow, I like the way you looked at this problem from several angles and chose an unusual solution”).

What that means, folks, is that kids who are praised for self (traits such as physical attractiveness, intelligence, or possessions) are prone to deal less well in the future with problems and challenges than are children who are complimented for their work effort, regardless of prior success. In a nutshell, when you compliment work effort, you often help lead your child to a solid work ethic that will continue to develop as he grows to and through adulthood. The time-worn sayings “It’s not whether you win or lose that’s important, it’s how you play the game,” or “Success is more perspiration than inspiration,” apparently are not just Great-Grandma’s ramblings — there’s now clinical data to back her up!

When parents express appreciation for what a child has accomplished by focusing on the effort put in or the method used to accomplish the task, rather than by labeling or evaluating the child as a whole, this sets the stage for perseverance in the later years. Praise for the effort, strategizing, work, and persistence children put into their accomplishments more fully recognizes their achievements than does ability praise. This means that kids should be praised for how they do their work rather than for the final product or their IQ score.

This is actually easier to accomplish than you might think at first glance. “Trying and failing” occurs more often in children’s lives than do large successes. Think of all of the times that your kid takes the basketball onto the driveway and tries to shoot hoops. That 10-foot height can be daunting to a 10-year-old who comes in at about 4 feet 4 inches, yet somehow he keeps trying. And trying, and trying. And then one day it finally happens — whether it was the wind lending a hand or some skill and strength actually kicking in, the kid swooshes the ball through the net. He’s thrilled, and I’m sure that you’ll be the first to hear about it and to praise his accomplishment. But consider all of the attempts at making a basket that preceded that first success. Sure, giving him an “atta-boy” for making the shot is nice, but it’s your consistent praise and attention noting his daily, unsuccessful efforts that really teach him perseverance. Most kids with skill and strength can make a basket and continue to practice, but it takes someone very special to face defeat and carry on, failed shot after failed shot. Let him know the difference.

It’s also emotionally risky to get back in the saddle after failure. Friends may tease your child and wear down his motivation. But your support praises the process, not the child, and serves not only as encouragement but turns the focus onto effort, rather than success. As you may know from your own career, we cannot always control the outcome of every situation we’re in, but we sure can steer our energies in the proper direction. Yet we can do this only if we’ve been trained to continue without immediate success and to view obstacles as challenges, not as annoying or impossible problems interfering with our lives.

Whether it’s shooting hoops in the driveway, taking an advanced placement course in high school rather than an average class, or trying out for a sports team already populated with talented athletes, your kid will be much more inclined toward challenges and positive risk-taking if he has been raised with a steady diet of process or effort praise, rather than being adulated for his IQ or strong muscles.

Try to remember this if your 4-year-old daughter just can’t keep her crayon between the lines but is trying her best, or if your 16-year-old son is giving it his all but still scares the dickens out of you when you take him out driving those first few times. Remind yourself that it’s the effort that counts, not today’s performance. In fact, there’s another body of research suggesting that when things come too easily, it’s human nature to be unappreciative, to take our abilities for granted and to not be able to rise to the occasion when we are unexpectedly challenged by adversity.

Living the Law
Here’s the scoop to avoid raising a praise junkie.

Praise the process rather than the person. Do say “Stacking blocks is tough for a little guy like you, let’s keep trying,” rather than “You’re so smart. Stacking blocks will be a piece of cake!”

Be specific. Praise so that your kids will understand exactly what behaviors you are complimenting. Say, “That was a tough math problem and I saw that you were becoming frustrated. But you stuck with it,” rather than, “Good job on your math homework.”

Praise often, but don’t overdo it. Too much praise tends to water down the effectiveness and purpose of complimenting. (I can’t tell you how many children and teenagers have noted to me that they are skeptical of their parents’ praise because, “It’s just my Mom saying I’m pretty. She has to say that because she’s my mother.”) If you want your kids to trust and to believe in you, then you have to be believable.

Love unconditionally, but praise conditionally. No matter what your kids do, I’m sure that they are well loved. However, they don’t need to be enveloped with compliments 24/7 — it’s too much for them to absorb and to believe, as well as too draining for you. You can be an effective parent if you praise only when it’s deserved. Our children will develop their self-concept largely from how the real world treats them. And in my experience, most of us are respected for our work ethic, not just for showing up or for what we possess.

With older children, you may have to look for, and take advantage of, opportunities to compliment. As little ones there are so many “firsts” (sitting up, crawling, walking, talking) that it’s a virtual praise-a-thon. However, as they mature, many kids tend to communicate more with their friends than with you, and you may not even be aware of some of their efforts or accomplishments. Therefore, a good place to start with the middle- and high-schoolers is to discuss projects and schoolwork. Also, athletic activities can be fertile ground for effort praise, even if the kid doesn’t lead the league in homers or field goals. As long as he’s out there giving it his all — that’s what is deserving of your compliments and reinforcement.

Rodale Books

From “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” by Dr. Ruth Peters. Copyright ©2002 by Dr. Ruth Peters. Excerpted by permission of Rodale. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information you can visit her Web site at www.ruthpeters.com. Copyright ©2006 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.

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