Five Ways to Praise for Healthy Self-Esteem

February 29, 2012

I am sure all of you have heard of the controversy surrounding the topic of whether or not “praise” is good for our kids’ self-esteem.

When I was young, I had a acquaintance/friend in my neighborhood, who would always say, “Adina, you are so nice!” I was always a little scared to talk to her. What if one day I would say something not nice? What would she think?

It sounds silly, but I did not want to spend a lot of time with her.  And frankly, I wasn’t so very nice; I avoided her quite a bit.

As you can see, I have always had a hard time with “praise.” This included,

  • “Good for you!”
  • “You are the smartest.”
  • “Good job!”
  • “You are the best!”

It always sounded superficial to me. It made me uncomfortable.  I would think, “Do they really mean it? Am I really the best?” I also would feel stressed: “Can I keep this up? I’m doing a good job now, but for how long?”

I was happy to discover that the feelings that I felt – and continue to feel – are pretty universal.  The latest research has backed me up. It is now a scientific fact (Dweck & Mueller, 1998).  The pat phrases,

  • “Nice work,”
  • “Good boy,” and,
  • “You are so clever”

are actually bad for kids (and not great for adults either). This type of encouragement is hard for people, especially children, to hear. It creates pressure and is counterproductive.

The same hold true for the use of superlatives:

  • “You are the greatest ball player!”
  • “You are the brightest in your class!”

When kids hear this type of praise they are put into a position where they feel they always have to be the best. They need to live up to their so-called reputation, which is impossible for kids to manage.

The drawbacks don’t stop there.  Children who are given heavy doses of “good job” tend to be less confident in proposing ideas that others might disapprove.  They often won’t make decisions based on what they think is right. Instead, they will spend a lot of time trying to figure out what to do and what to say to make the adults in their lives happy.  This type of praise breeds insincerity.

So, knowing what we know – that praise can be awfully detrimental –  how can we encourage our kids and improve their self-esteem? Most parents want to praise their kids for a noble cause. They want to focus on their children’s positive behavior to reinforce good behavior and to motivate. They also feel that it helps them as parents to view their kids in a positive way, making it easier to bond and support their children.

Not to worry. There are ways to praise our kids that builds them up, nurtures them and makes them feel good about themselves.

Here are five great ways for us to effectively praise our kids:

1) Don’t judge, just see:

In order for praise to work, we need to avoid using judgment words. We just want to notice our children’s actions as if we were asked to objectively describe a scene playing out in front of us.

  • “When Sara wanted to play with the Wii, you let her have a turn.”
  • “You put the Shabbat candles up, cut the paper towels and put the Kiddush cups out.”
  • “You got the ball and you passed it to your teammate and he made the basket!”
  • “Your room had clothing all over the floor and now all that clothing is hung up or in the laundry basket!”

Praising kids in this way encourages them and builds their self-esteem. It gives them clear pictures of what their capabilities are – independent of whether or not anyone is noticing – so that they don’t have to seek out approval. It is information about themselves that they can use when they are alone, not just when adults are watching.  Then they are able to infer on their own:

  • “I know how to share my toys.”
  • “I can be helpful.”
  • “I am a team player.”
  • “I know how to clean my room.”

2) Notice that they try:

Another great way to praise kids is to notice the effort they bring to a task, instead of the end result.

It sounds like this:

  • “I see that you cleaned the Legos in the family room and now are working on the dolls. This room is getting cleaner.”
  • “Your homework tonight sounds challenging. You books are open and you look ready to tackle it.”
  • “When you played chess with Zaidy today, I saw you thinking about your moves very carefully. You had some interesting moves. I think Zaidy was impressed with your strategy.”

This type of praise builds kids up because they know that they don’t have to be the “best” – they just know they need to try their hardest to succeed. Research has shown that this is the type of praise that truly motivates kids to perform well.

3) Kick it up another notch:

There is another way we can effectively praise our kids. “Good praise” should highlight a specific action and the middah, attribute, that a child used to fulfill that action.

  • Instead of: “You are the best brother!”
  • Try: “You found a toy that Eli likes. First you tried the bird, but he did not want that. Then you tried the elephant. That is using the middah of patience.”
  • Instead of: “You are so sweet.”
  • Try: “You got Sara a cup of juice. That is how you do chessed.”

We can also let them know what mitzvah they have performed.

  • Instead of: “You are such a mitzvah boy!”
  • Try: “You got me a tissue. That is the mitzvah of Kibud Av Va’em
  • “You returned your friend’s forgotten jacket. That is the mitzvah of Hashavat Aveidah.”

Using praise in this way helps us teach kids the values and attributes that are important to us. It teaches them the middot that we would like them to espouse and the mitzvot that we would like them to perform – in our homes and in their future homes.

4) Teach them to look at their achievements:

We don’t need to stop there. Another way we can praise children is to ask them questions about how they felt about their successes.

When our kids ask us:

  • “Mommy, was I good? Did you like my Mesibat Siddur?

We can turn their question around and ask:

  • ”What did you like about your Mesibat Siddur? What was the best part about getting your siddur?”
  • “What was the most important thing your class did to prepare for this day?”

When we ask our children these types of questions, we teach them the following:
Self-evaluation skills. This helps them learn to assess themselves and their accomplishments instead of relying on others.

To have a strong self-image: They are encouraged to internalize what they observe about their own achievements.

Success comes from their inner strengths: They have all the ingredients they need to succeed within themselves. They need to look inward in order to move forward in life.

5) The best things come in small packages:

Finally, we can use praise to nurture our relationships with our kids. Most parents get frustrated with their kids’ negative behavior. To relieve some of that tension, parents can be on the lookout for any positive acts their child exhibits. They can then praise them by telling them that their behavior is appreciated.

“But let’s say they don’t do anything good?” is often a parent’s response. Many parents are looking for extraordinary acts of goodness, when it is just the regular stuff their kids do that needs to be noticed.

  • I appreciate that you told me you were going over to the neighbor’s house.
  • I appreciate that you put your Shabbos clothes on.
  • I appreciate that you put your bike away in the garage.
  • I appreciate that you listened to me and got into bed even though you did not want to.

This type of praise does not generate feelings of pressure. It is just a way to let our children know that we value what he does.

I hope my old acquaintance forgives me. It would have been so much better if she had said, “You and I seem to like the same games, like hopscotch and tag. You let me have a turn with your new jump rope. That is why I like to play with you.” I know it is a lot to ask of a little kid, but our relationship would have thrived.

Praising effectively is a challenge. Avoiding judgment words and highlighting specific actions and attributes seems time consuming. Noticing a child’s effort, teaching kids to look at their achievements and appreciating the little things can be a big job. However, it is worth all the effort, because it is the best and truest way to build your child’s self-esteem.

Dweck, C., Mueller, C. (1998) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:  Vol 75. No. 1. Pp. 33-52

Adina Soclof, a certified Speech Pathologist, received her masters degree from Hunter College in New York in Communication Sciences. She works as a Parent Educator for Bellefaire Jewish Children’s Bureau facilitating “How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk” workshops as well as workshops based on “Siblings Without Rivalry.” Adina also runs and conducts parenting, teacher and clinician workshops via telephone nationwide. Adina lives with her husband and four lively children in Cleveland, Ohio. You can visit her at website at

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.