The Power of Descriptive Praise

In an effort to enhance their kid's self-esteem, moms and dads often use praise to recognize the efforts and accomplishments of their kids. Of course, recognizing your kid's positive behavior is more likely to build self-esteem than dwelling on problems. But praise is not always uplifting.

Praise like “you're impressive …brilliant …amazing” can be too much for a child to believe. It is hard to accept such exaggerated praise. Have you ever noticed how uneasy you feel whenever anyone evaluates you? When someone tells you that you're “attractive” or “clever” -- all you can think about are the times you felt unsightly or did something stupid.

Kids also become uncomfortable with praise that evaluates them. They often dismiss it. Sometimes they will deliberately misbehave to prove you wrong. Instead of evaluating what your youngster has done, it is usually better to describe it. Describe in detail exactly what your youngster did. Then your youngster, hearing the description, is likely to recognize the truth and credit himself/herself.

The kind of praise a youngster can “believe” and that truly builds self-esteem comes in two parts:
  1. the parent describes what the youngster has done (e.g., “I see you are all ready for school. You picked up your toys, put on your jacket, and even turned off the light in your bedroom”)
  2. the youngster, after hearing his accomplishment described, praises himself/herself (e.g., “I know how to be responsible”)

Descriptive praise is harder and takes longer, but the payoff is usually greater. Descriptive praise helps kids become independent, creative thinkers and doers. They do not look to others for approval. They trust themselves and their own judgment. They have enough confidence to say to themselves, "I'm happy with what I have done." They learn to make changes or improvements based on their own evaluations.

Evaluative praise is a way of making - and keeping - kids dependent on parents. It gets children to conform to the parent's wishes. It sustains a dependence on the parent's evaluations and decisions about what is good and bad rather than helping children to begin to form their own judgments. It leads kids to measure their worth in terms of what will make parents smile and offer the positive words they crave. It leads to a dependency on approval. The evaluative praise, “You are a very helpful person,” makes the youngster dependent on the judgment of the person doing the praising. But the descriptive praise, “When you saw that Sally dropped her books, you stopped what you were doing and helped her pick them up” gives a youngster a sense of his own abilities and accomplishments.

Descriptive praise lets a youngster evaluate himself. If you want your son to focus his attention more on the impact he had on Sally, you can say something like, “Look at Sally’s face! She looks very happy because you helped her pick up the books.” You can help your youngster see how his actions affect others.

Parents should ask themselves, “Does my praise make my kids more dependent on me and my approval, or do my words help them see their strong points and give them a clear picture of their skills and accomplishments?” The goal is to help your kids get in touch with their own abilities such that they can praise themselves. The person your youngster needs to please is himself/herself.

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

Descriptive praise, then, has two parts:
  1. the adult expresses appreciation for some specific contribution or effort
  2. the youngster draws conclusions about himself/herself based on this specific statement from the adult

For a father to tell her daughter, “You're so smart” is not as effective in building self-esteem as saying “Math can be hard, but I see that you completed all your Math homework pretty quickly.” This girl can then think to herself, “I must be really smart. Dad thinks Math is hard.” These internal conclusions will be much more believable to the youngster than a father’s general value judgment of the youngster as an individual.

Evaluative comments are often unnecessary. In the long run, moms and dads can become less judgmental and controlling, and help their kids become more independent and motivated simply by acknowledging what their kids do. For example, simply pointing out an aspect of a youngster's handwriting that seems interesting (without saying that it's nice or that you liked it) will probably be enough to encourage further efforts.

For example, if your first-grader makes you a home-made birthday card, instead of saying “It's lovely,” you can describe it: “I really like your drawing of a birthday cake and the red candles on top. This card makes me feel happy!”

It takes some effort to use descriptive praise rather than evaluative praise. It takes skill to encourage children in such a way that they remain interested in what they are doing – but don't feel controlled.

Remember descriptive praise has two parts:

1. describe what you see and hear
2. describe what you feel

Name three things your youngster does that you might want to praise:


Now, describe what your youngster does, and share your comments with him/her.


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