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Using Praise to Build Kids' Confidence – Without Overdoing It

Boosting your child's self esteem is important. But it's a delicate balance for parents. Here are five tips to help you create buoyancy in your children.

Kids often look to parents for performance feedback. They want our approval, and – because we love them to the moon and back – it's easy to go overboard.

Psychologists say the key to building your child's self-confidence is to nurture a growth mindset. You want your child to believe talents and abilities are developed through practice and sustained effort, not that he's already a superstar. That way, he'll feel free to take on any challenge, even if he doesn't succeed immediately.

Older kids may be skeptical of adults' assessments when given too easily. If your child doesn't believe your compliments, he may discount your opinion entirely. Studies show kids think adults make constructive criticisms when they believe a child can improve. Empty accolades may be a sign the adult believes a kid can't do better. School-age kids also sense when praise is manipulative, like when you praise your child after each bite of broccoli.

At any age, sincere words of affirmation can nurture kids' confidence. Follow these praiseworthy tips to build your child up without undermining his motivation.

1. Be specific

"You're so smart!" may roll right off your tongue, but it's best to steer clear of global assessments of kids' capabilities. These statements suggest abilities are fixed: Kids either have the right stuff or they don't. Specific comments show your child areas for growth. When you say, "You've written a wonderful story. Your pictures don't yet capture the action," you inspire your child to improve her artistry.

2. Don't pressure

What you praise – earning 100 percent, scoring the winning goal or completing an enormous achievement in Scouts – can convey unrealistically high expectations if you're not careful. Kids who feel pressured by praise may become pint-sized perfectionists. Recognize kids for making progress toward their goals, not just for outstanding outcomes.

3. Praise the process

"It's best to focus praise on the child's effort and how the child accomplished something," says New York family therapist and fatherhood expert Jeremy Schneider. Say, "You worked hard to finish your homework. When you got frustrated, I like how you didn't give up, but kept trying another way until you figured it out." Don't over-focus on the grade your child earned. Kids who are too invested in achievement avoid activities that don't come easily.

4. Get personal

In our competitive culture, it may seem that the best way to motivate your child is to praise her for outperforming her peers. Not so fast! Studies show praising kids for winning makes them bad losers in the long run. Being the best only energizes a child as long as she continues to win. When the streak ends, interest wanes. Praise your child for personal bests, not for coming in first. There's always room for improvement.

5. Practice moderation

When it comes to rewards, less may be more. If you constantly praise your child's behavior, he may feel like he's only doing it to get a reward. Two studies published in the journal Neuron show social rewards like praise and status activate the same parts of the brain as monetary rewards such as bribes and paychecks. The upshot? Just like a professional athlete who earns millions and loses the love of the game, your child's intrinsic desire can be stifled by too much praise.

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