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The question is based on my personal feelings, so is probably biased and subjective.

I frequently see parents (and remember my own) encouraging their children on every trivial or regular achievement by saying a big "WOW" (and making huge eyes) for example, if child of 4 years old remembers their grandma's name.

For me, it looks like they don't even believe the child can perform such easy tasks and this is why their child is so special.

I personally remember my deep frustration when I realised that my performance was a regular one and frequently even less successful then of other children, but my parents were so "wow"-impressed, that I believed "I'm on top" and stopped developing my ideas and skills in some areas, whereas other children continued their development.

So the question is how does one give a child the correct feeling about his/her skills but not an overestimation, which actually can have negative impact on their self-image and development?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

In general, you should be praising effort rather than results. A child that has difficulty remembering Grandma's name, and thinks hard and remembers, should be praised for the effort to try and remember. A child that has a hard time walking should be praised for the effort to try and walk, whether or not it is successful.

As such, the "Wow" is sort-of-good and sort-of-bad. If it is 'Wow, you did it!", it can be good if it's clear it's referring to the difficult struggle to accomplish X. If it's just "Wow, you did something easy", it's not particularly helpful.

Praising effort rather than results is discussed at length on the internet; for example, this article goes into a good survey of the arguments. In short, praising results encourages children to do 'easy' things to get rewards (praise) while praising effort encourages children to do 'hard' things to get rewards, and further helps them deal with failure (ie, praising results means kids are sad about failure and have a harder time dealing with it, while praising effort means kids are okay with failures, as long as they gave a good effort).

This isn't intended to be some sort of 'liberal hogwash' or whatnot, where we give everyone a trophy for participating; yes, results do matter, but in large part achieving results is its own reward. The addition of the praise is not needed to encourage success. This also is a separation between the parent and outsiders (coaches, teachers, etc.); the parent should lean towards praise for effort while the outsiders will mix some of each, particularly as the children get older.

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It is important to give positive feedback to what children do, even if the "reward" seems to be much too much for the actual task. For once this is important in the development of a child (receive positive feedback develops motivation) and for second you need to see the difficulty from the eyes of a 3-year old. Even walking is a challenge at that age.

With growing age the rewards should of course be adjusted appropriately, so rewarding a 16-year old for every step he manages to walk is kind of overkill.

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We always did it by describing behaviors rather than overtly praising them. This left the child to ascribe pride to the accomplishment on his own. For example, we would say, "You climbed all the way to the top!" - without any overstated objectives. Sometimes we might comment on the effort it took, like: "You tied your shoes. That's a hard thing to learn."

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