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Encouragement plays such a huge role throughout our lives. Think about it! Whether we are learning to walk, graduating from preschool, competing in a sport, or working on an important project in our jobs, encouragement has given us strength and pushed us through some of the most challenging times. Most importantly, though, encouragement has tremendous power in our formative years. Why is encouragement so important? Experts believe that it has the power to mold us-----our view of ourselves and the world around us, our work ethic, our confidence, and even how we learn. Encouragement can also teach children to self-assess—their beliefs, what’s important to them, what interests them, and even builds problem-solving skills. What you might not know, though, is that encouragement is a bit different than the praise we often give to our children, such as the “Good jobs”, “You’re so smarts”, or “I’m proud of yous”. Though well-meaning and sincere, this kind of praise or encouragement is not helpful, and can even have a negative effect on a child.

The difference here is that praise places emphasis on the end result rather than the process, perfection rather than progress toward a goal, or a good or bad decision rather than the decision-making process. This kind of ‘encouragement’ teaches children to depend on affirmations and can foster a false belief that what others think is more important than what they themselves think. Praise lends itself to the unintentional manipulation of the child’s behavior instead of teaching the child about decision-making, mistakes, success, and most importantly, building the child’s confidence.

What is important to remember when encouraging your child?

1. INTRINSIC VALUE. A key factor in encouraging children is valuing them as they are, not who you want them to be or for their accomplishments (eg., I approve or value you when you get a 100, or I do not approve of you when you lose). Children must feel their value through your tone, body language, and words. This helps children to believe in their own intrinsic value instead of believing that they are valuable because of their accomplishments or because they do what they are told.

2. SPECIFIC BEHAVIOR. It’s best to encourage a specific behavior rather than general character. In Carol Dweck’s study, she found that when children received specific encouragement for a behavior rather than praise for their ‘character’ (eg., smart or good), they believed they had the ability to change and put forth effort to improve. Those who received praise for their character and not specific encouragement for a behavior believed the characteristic to be “fixed,” and could not be changed. Jo Anne Mitchell explains that comments should reinforce “the deed and not the doer”. Examples of this more effective encouragement would be, “That was kind of you to share your toys” rather than “You are so sweet”, and “You are using your self-control right now” rather than “You are such a good boy”.

4. PROGRESS. Research proves that acknowledging progress is also paramount in encouragement. Jo Anne Mitchell explains that if we recognize even the slightest growth or improvement in children, we must comment and acknowledge this growth. This acknowledgment provides hope for the child, which leads to the belief that they can change and improve. (eg., You know 5 letters now! Wow!)

3. EFFORT. If we take a little closer look at recognizing improvement, it’s important to also give equal recognition to effort and accomplishment. Children frequently do not want to try new things for fear of failure. To encourage persistence and perseverance, we must also encourage the effort a child makes rather than perfection. (eg., “You are working so hard on that drawing” rather than “That is a great picture!”) The recognition of effort leads us to the last point, which is that mistakes are good!

4. MISTAKES ARE GOOD. It is key to let children do things that they can do on their own. This might be one of the most difficult guidelines to stand by. As parents, we don’t want to see our children fail, we don’t want them to be sad or disappointed, and we want to celebrate their successes with them. This makes it so difficult not to solve their problems for them, to pick up them up when they are stumbling, or to complete their homework for them. Instead, we must make it a point to allow our children to struggle through a problem and stand by their sides through it. If needed, we can solve the problem together. Making mistakes is an important component in the learning process, and we can make a point to let our children know when we make mistakes ourselves.

More examples of encouragement:

  • “You are really working hard on your project” (emphasizes effort) instead of “That project is awesome!”

  • “You look so proud of the way you played your soccer game today” instead of “I’m so proud of you.”

  • “You’ve gotten better since last week” (effort, progress) instead of only praising upon reaching goal.

  • “That was a creative way to solve the problem” instead of “You’re so smart.”

  • “Thanks for helping” instead of “You are such a good kid.”

Some research in this blog from: Encouragement by Jo Anne Mitchell

Written By Allison Arbelaez, LCSW

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