By Kylie MacKenzie
By using the right phrases, at the right time, you will not only develop a child’s ability to focus on positivity in themselves and grow their imagination, but will also teach them perseverance, honesty and the skills to be a responsible adult.
According to research, words of encouragement make a difference in building a child’s self-esteem and ongoing confidence. Most of us perform better when we are excited and motivated, so work on an approach that helps your kids feel good about themselves.
Children need to know that learning is the goal, not winning. And it’s our job as adults to help them acquire the ability to overcome frustration and disappointment along the way. This will not only help with task mastery and overall satisfaction, but will also encourage them to be brave enough to try new things and work well with others.
Be sincere and honest
Children need consistency and truthfulness. They can usually tell when praise or encouragement is rote, insincere or overly effusive. Not praising spontaneously or using encouragement
to manipulate behaviour can actually have a negative effect. Don’t refer to your son as a genius when he answers one question out of three correctly. Say something like, “You came up with a good answer for the last question” or “Well done, I liked your clever answer for the question about the weather.”
Avoid focusing on ability; praise effort instead
The lesson here is to recognize what has been accomplished and the effort that a child has put into the task. This allows you to keep encouraging them to gradually push for improvement.
An effort or mastery-based focus develops results-based learning, as well future resilience and determination to try to improve their skills.
Focus on a growth-based mindset
When words of encouragement are given spontaneously they can be very motivating, but handing out praise for tasks that are easy to complete lowers expectation. Avoiding mention of failure or loss is not great either, as it implies a lack of a personal ability—instead of encouraging a move-forward position, it tends to cultivate a child’s belief that they give up too quickly because they “don’t have it in them.”
To avoid the “I can’t do it” syndrome, use language such as: “I can see you’ve worked hard to figure out different ways to solve this challenging puzzle. Let’s try the next level together,” rather than “You’re a great puzzle solver.” By reinforcing a child’s multiple approaches and creativity in problem-solving, you are encouraging a try, try, try again approach that fosters personal growth.
Be specific and descriptive
Try saying, “I love the shape and colours you used in that drawing. You were so creative” instead of sweeping generalizations, such as “That’s awesome” or “Good job.” This shows you are paying attention and really care. You can also ask the child which part of their drawing they like best or what they think they have done well.
“Teaching kids to count is fine, but teaching
them what counts is best.”
Skip lavishness, exaggeration and overpraising
If you say “You’re so beautiful/handsome” too much, a child may become over-confident. Rather, say “You look nice in that blue shirt and sweater.” Try not to compare your child with others by saying they are not as smart as their older sister or they’re even smarter than Roli. Instead, encourage them to focus on the task at hand and to continue trying to improve themselves in a variety of ways. Depending on what you want to encourage, some experts suggest that words of encouragement can be categorized into general words and those related to performing a task.
General encouragement would be saying things such as: “You’re good at playing this game,” “I’m so proud of you,” “That was such a kind thing to do,” “We love you and will try to keep you safe,” “Being a parent is my favourite job,” “I think about you all the time and love spending time with you,” “You make me smile.” And, of course, “I will love you no matter what.”
Task-based encouragement that exudes positivity includes using phrases like: “I can see that you’re trying so hard to finish your homework,” “I love your creativity when it comes to picking your clothes.” Or when a child is struggling: “I believe that you can do this,” “Let me help you,” “I’m so proud that you knew when to ask for help,” “It’s okay to learn from your mistakes,” or “Take a break and come back to it and I’ll help you.”
After a bad day or disappointments, try phrases such as: “I’m sorry you had a bad day. Let’s hope tomorrow will be better,” “You’ll feel better after you get some rest,” and “Let’s have a cuddle and you can tell me all about it.”
Avoid praise that is controlling or conditional
When praise is used as a control tool, an adult’s approval becomes contingent on the child achieving a particular aim, such as winning a competition or delivering an excellent piano performance. This contributes to low self-esteem and often results in failure to try new things.
Experts also suggest that conditional encouragement such as this reduces a child’s intrinsic motivation and can lead to achievement-based helplessness in the face of longer-term difficulties. It’s also worth noting that the negative impact of controlling praise is bigger on girls than boys, and that the sense that “I’m valued and loved only if I play the piano well” is particularly problematic when it comes to maintaining a youngster’s motivation and morale.
In the past, encouraging words have been effectively used to facilitate success at school and in sports activities, but not so much in the home. If those of us who are parents or grandparents can build the aforementioned words and phrases into day-to-day family life, we might just have found the key to happier, healthier and more life-ready young people.
Kylie MacKenzie is a freelance writerand mother of three, based in Cobourg.