Encouragement vs. Praise: Raising A Self-Sufficient Child

Lisa Larsen, LPC
Every parent has heard how important it is to praise your child in the development of a strong self-concept and to improve behavior. It's true that although praise may inspire some children toward better behavior in the moment, more than likely what can result in the long term is a "people pleaser" or a child whose motivation to do well exists solely upon the approval of others. Some children actually rebel against praise either because they don't want to live up to others' expectations or they fear they can't compete and can actually shut down as a way of self-protecting. Encouragement, on the other hand, tends to invite self-confidence because it is much more about recognizing the specific skills and behaviors that you notice your child is succeeding at, therefore the focus becomes more intrinsic - it's about pleasing themselves as opposed to pleasing others. 

Let's take a look at the definitions:

Praise: To express favorable judgment; To glorify, especially by attribution of perfection; An expression of approval.
Encouragement: To inspire with courage; To spur on: stimulate

There has been a faulty belief over the years that parents can "give" a child self-esteem. Self-esteem cannot be given or received. It is created through a sense of feeling capable of handling life on their own. Self-confidence is developed from handling disappointments,  dealing with conflict, solving problems, and having tons of opportunities to learn from their mistakes, both academically and socially. As parents, we must keep in mind that although it's hard to watch our children struggle, fail, or feel hurt and disappointed, every time we rescue them from experiencing these important life lessons, the message we are really sending is "You can't handle this therefore I need to handle it for you." Children, teens, and young adults develop a solid sense of self and true self-confidence by struggling through adverse experiences, problem solving, and taking responsibility for their own actions - both good and bad. It's truly the only way it works. 

The difference between Praise and Encouragement can be confusing, especially for those who see immediate results from praise. Here are some guiding questions to ask yourself whether the statement is Praise or Encouragement:
  • Am I inspiring self-evaluation or the opinions of others?
  • Am I being respectful or critical and patronizing?
  • Am I seeing the child's point of view or only my own?
  • Would I make this comment to a friend or colleague?
Take a look at these examples:

You are such a good boy/girl.I appreciate your help.
You did it just like I told you.You figured it out for yourself.
All A's - I'm going to reward you.You worked hard, you deserve it.
I'm so proud of you.I'm so proud of you.
I like what you did!How do you feel about it?
You always look perfect.You create your own unique look.
You always have the right answer.You work hard to learn from your mistakes.
You are the best player on the team.You are a good team player.
Your drawing is so good!Your drawing is so good!
You did it better than anyone else.You did your best and you don't give up.
You really know how to please me. I love you no matter what.
I invite you to reflect on the language you use to support, love, and encourage positive behavior in your child. Although you may love to see those happy, beaming faces when you shower your child with praise, keep in mind the long-term goal - creating a self-confident child motivated intrinsically to succeed by your loving words through challenges, conflict, mistakes, and pointing out all those amazing skills they already possess. 

Material provided by Positive Discipline by Dr. Jane Nelsen.

Lisa Hellmer, LPC
St Gabriel’s Counselor
St. Gabriel's Catholic School is an Independent Catholic school in Austin TX, educating children in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school.