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Balancing Praise and Criticism

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Caregivers have the difficult job of figuring out how to balance positive praise and encouragement with the need to correct children when they do something dangerous or wrong. As each child will have different needs, there is not really any absolute "correct" answer with regard to exactly how much praise should be offered and how much correction, but we can offer some rough guidelines. A good basic rule that parents can follow is to make sure that they offer a lot more praise and encouragement than correction. Children (like adults) don't like to be corrected; they find it punishing. Offering extra praise helps balance out the overall tone of communications between parents and children so that children don't conclude that parents are only out to correct them.

Guidelines for Praising Children

Offered praise needs to be genuine or it will not have its desired effect of rewarding and reinforcing children. Many kids will know (by intuition) when parents' praise is hollow or patronizing. Parents can avoid offering empty praise by attending to and praising children's specific skills, positive attitudes, and desirable physical, mental, emotional, or social attributes that parents wish to reward and see more of, such as curiosity, perseverance, honesty, hygiene or obedience.

Though parents will obviously want to praise children for displaying "good" attributes more than for bad ones, it is important that parents praise children more for their effort than for their success. Working parents live in a competitive world where they are mostly rewarded only for their success. It is thus easier for parents to notice and want to praise the successful outcome of children's efforts rather than their effort itself. There are several reasons why this is a bad idea. By singling out and praising only successful outcomes and failing to acknowledge, or criticizing failures that nevertheless constitute real effort, parents communicate to their children that their praise is conditional, and that children will only receive love if they "win". There's nothing wrong with winning, of course, but only associating praise with winning can cause children to feel less secure in parental love with the result that children possibly experience anxiety and other emotional problems which may then interfere with their efforts, and ultimately reduce their overall ability to succeed.

Praising only successful efforts is also counterproductive when you consider that many behaviors parents would like their children to become good at are complicated and cannot be mastered all at once. Wise parents understand the principle of behavioral shaping, which involves rewarding behaviors that are "in the right direction" and which will (with successive repetition and loving guidance) become more perfect over time. Parents who criticize a partially correct effort risk shutting down that child's willingness to persevere.

What does offering praise for effort look and sound like? Here are a few examples:

Jamie's mother notes that Jamie got a C (an average grade) on her math test this week. Instead of criticizing her daughter for not getting higher marks, she says instead,

"Jamie, I'm so impressed with how hard you studied for that test this week. I saw you reading every night this week."

Even though Jamie may not have gotten an "A" or a "B" on the test, her efforts towards studying are a vital foundation for her future success at math. Through her comment, Mom reinforced in Jamie's mind that her parents are aware of and approve of her efforts. This makes it more likely that Jamie will be willing to study in the future. Jamie's parents then have the opportunity to help Jamie learn how to study more efficiently.

In another example, a father eats a delicious slice of cake that his daughter has made. Instead of praising his daughter's baking skill which is already fairly well developed, he says instead,

"Sarah that was an awesome cake you made. You're so creative, what a nice touch to include those candy pieces in the frosting."

Here, Dad has chosen to praise his child's positive use of an attribute (creativity), which he believes will help her to become an even better baker in the future.

Effectively used, praise should highlight positive things children do or the way children use the qualities or attributes they possess. Most importantly, praise should focus on children's effort and perseverance. Practice makes perfect.