I remember the day so clearly. It was the week after the new SimCity video game was released last year and my 13-year-old, Peter, had been pushing the limits of his allotted 30 minutes of screen time. We'd been arguing about his gaming addiction, particularly after I woke up at 1 a.m. and found him tapping away in the dark, mapping out his futuristic metropolis. There had also been heated exchanges about watching too much TV, the breaking of a third school-owned laptop, and his insistence that not finishing his homework in time for hockey practice was somehow Mom and Dad's fault. So imagine my surprise when, in this vortex of wrongness, I caught him doing something right. He was sitting at the dining table, concentrating on a class assignment. His brother, Henrik, 10, and sister, Luisa, 8, were chasing each other around the room, shrieking and laughing. "Guys," said Peter calmly. "Can you be quiet?" More shrieks. More laughter. "Please," he said, his voice on the edge of a growl. Henrik lurched toward Luisa. She screeched at the top of her little lungs. "Stop it! " Peter yelled. "I want to pound you right now and I'm trying really hard not to!" Okay, he wasn't offering to shovel our neighbor's sidewalk or join a bike-a-thon fundraiser for cancer research. So if it seems strange that this moment made my heart swell with pride, it's partly because there have been way too many times when Peter hasn't been able to control his temper.
Not blowing up at his siblings was a great leap forward for him—and certainly something worth acknowledging. The question was, how? Pouring on the compliments didn't seem right—I'd basically be comparing Peter to his siblings and implying he behaved better than they did. And I believe that kids today receive too much praise. Many parents believe the best way to boost self-esteem is by applauding, cheering and fussing over their children's awesomeness. But there's a downside to that rah-rah mentality. Knee-jerk remarks like "Great job" and "Way to go" don't convey to kids what they actually did right. Such pat phrases focus on an end result, not the hard work behind it. And nonstop platitudes can create a hunger for external approval. So I decided to say nothing. But I felt I'd missed an opportunity to bond with Peter over something positive, especially at a time when it seemed all I did was criticize him—for not making the bed, not putting the milk back in the fridge, not thanking us for driving him to visit a friend.
Hoping to break the cycle of negativity, I asked for guidance from parenting experts, who shared these pointers on the right way to sing your kids' praises.
Giving an A for Trying
It may seem counterintuitive, but commending what comes naturally—whether it's athletic talent, a musical gift or brainpower—often backfires, according to Carol Dweck, Ph.D., a psychology professor and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Her research, conducted with colleagues at Columbia University, found that kids who were lauded for their intelligence became overly focused on performing well: After incorrectly answering some IQ test questions, they showed less persistence and performed poorly even on easier ones that followed. "Once you praise a child for intelligence, they can become invested in success," says Dweck. "They fear difficulty because they begin to equate failure with stupidity." Recognizing and rewarding effort, however, has the opposite effect, motivating kids to work harder, aim higher and savor their achievements.
Think Details, Details, Details
Stop and reflect a moment: The main goal of praise is reinforcement—that is, encouraging children to continue to act in ways that lead to positive outcomes.
"If you're not clear about how and why they've done something good, it's more difficult for them to repeat that behavior," says psychologist Richard Weissbourd, author of The Parents We Mean to Be. Research shows it's important to avoid generalizations and to be specific about their actions, not your feelings. ("You practiced so hard for that piano recital," or "I could see how focused you were during that chess match.") Zero in on areas your kid can control—and improve—to reach her goals, including discipline, perseverance, kindness, generosity and respect.
Don't dole out compliments so feeble that they mean nothing. Teens, after all, can sense when you're faking. "It's disingenuous to say, 'You were so sweet with Grandma today—good job!'" says Madeline Levine, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of Teach Your Children Well. "Your kid will know you're actively trying to be positive and may end up feeling he's being manipulated or patronized." A subtler alternative, Levine suggests, is to casually mention that you noticed him helping his grandmother in and out of the car, and then ask how he thinks she's doing health-wise. For times when even that would seem forced, a simple "You were very kind and thoughtful today" will also do the trick.
Applaud True Accomplishments
Don't commend your kid for easy tasks like taking out the trash or tossing her jeans in the hamper. "This kind of reflexive praise makes too big a deal about ordinary responsibilities that should be part of family life," says Weissbourd. It can also have more damaging consequences. Your teen may think you can't recognize how simple the job is, or suspect you believe he's fragile if he needs a pat on the back for doing it. "Save your appreciation for efforts that are merit-worthy," says Weissbourd. "When praise is truly deserved, it becomes a powerful motivating force."
Silence Is Golden
Sometimes the most effective strategy is to withhold compliments. "Kids know when they've made a generous or mature choice," says Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the author of The Blessing of a B Minus. "And the intrinsic gratification they get is its own private reward." Mogel's advice really struck a chord with me. I realized I won't be there to pat Peter on the back when he's in college and volunteers to be the designated driver. And I don't want him to text me expecting kudos for finally figuring out how to use the coffeemaker. Maybe, deep down, that's why I didn't praise him for not pummeling Henrik and Luisa that day. "It was a smart move," says Mogel. "By trusting kids to know when they've behaved well, we establish a cycle where they're not dependent on others to feel accomplishments."
Slowly but surely, I'm learning how to parcel out the praise. A few months into my new approach, Peter asked if we could spend a weekend in Chicago—an eight-hour drive from our home in Minneapolis—for his birthday. My husband and I explained that we don't spend that kind of money on gifts. Peter then went on Priceline and not only found a room in a boutique hotel for $130 a night for the five of us, but also offered to pay for both nights out of his savings. That my middle schooler had squirreled away so much dough—from his allowance, cash gifts from relatives and little jobs for the neighbors— impressed the heck out of me. That he was unselfishly willing to spend all of it on an adventure for the entire family knocked me off my feet. So we said yes, and told him that we would cover the rest of the expenses. It was a glorious, memorable weekend—swimming in Lake Michigan, enjoying a river tour of the city's storied architecture, riding the "L" train around town. Peter was excited, exuberant, exhilarated—the same feelings, I realized, he experiences during all those SimCity sessions. He didn't need me to tell him how awesome he was for making this dream vacation happen. That was something he already knew.
Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Family Circle magazine.