There’s Actually a Wrong Way to Praise Your Kids (Ch. 5)

Don’t you ever notice that people will often speak up when something goes wrong? For instance, when you’re at a restaurant you may never compliment your server if they’ve been doing a great job, but the moment they forget to refill your drinks then that’s all you can remember about your experience there.

Most people are quick to criticize and slow to praise. As parents, it’s our duty to reverse that order.

We need to be good at praising our kids, but we need to be doing it the right way because as it turns out, there’s a less-than-right way. And when we do it correctly, we are pouring into their self-esteem and giving them a positive self-image that will carry over to other areas of their lives.

Up to this point, we have learned to show respect for a child’s feelings, offer him/her a chance to make a choice, give him/her a chance to solve their own problems– all of which contribute to a child’s self-esteem.

The last missing component is praise and when done correctly, it can be life-giving.

How You Can Praise Incorrectly

As you read each situation, think about how you would respond upon hearing the compliment given the circumstances described. Then I’ll follow up with some potential built-in problems with this kind of praise.

Situation 1

You have an unexpected guest over for dinner so you throw together a quick meal involving condensed soup, leftover chicken, and some instant rice. Upon taking the first bite, your guest says “You’re a great cook!”

Potential Thoughts: You might doubt the praiser and think “If you think I’m a good cook, either you have poor taste or you’re lying.”

Situation 2

You literally just changed out of yoga pants and a t-shirt to go to an important meeting. An acquaintance approaches you and says “You’re always so beautifully dressed.”

Potential Thoughts: You might feel immediate denial and think “Pfft, if only you saw what I was wearing 5 minutes ago”.

Situation 3

You just picked up on tennis and are struggling to serve the ball correctly. Often times it’ll go right into the net or off the court. You have a new doubles partner today and your first serve lands perfectly in the center of the service boxes. Your partner looks at you and says “Hey, you’ve got a perfect serve!”

Potential Thoughts: You might have anxiety and think “Pressure’s on, I better keep having perfect serves the rest of the game.”

Praise is a tricky thing, isn’t it? I know countless times my kids have shown me a drawing or project they’ve been working on and ask “How do you think this looks?” and I’ll respond with “Great!”, “Fantastic!”, or “Beautiful!” yet I could always sense a level of dissatisfaction with my response. Now I know why.

So How Do I Praise Correctly?

Helpful praise, as it turns out, is not that hard. There are only two main concepts to grapple.

  1. The adult describes with appreciation what he or she sees or feels AKA “Descriptive Praise”
  2. The child, after hearing the description, is then able to praise him/herself.

Ignore the use of the word “pleasure” because it’s weird when talking about parenting, but these examples from the book really drive this point home well.


To make it easier for me (and possibly for you) I thought it would be helpful to give examples of common praises parents use and then change it into descriptive praise.

Common: You’re so thoughtful!
Descriptive: You gave the first bite of your birthday cake to your sister, that is so considerate of you!

Common: That looks great!
Descriptive: I see that you put all the books back in order, lined up the toy trucks, and remembered to make your bed. Your room looks great!

Common: That’s wonderful!
Descriptive: I noticed you worked so hard this week studying for your spelling test and now you got 100%, you must be so proud!

Yes, descriptive praise requires more words and aforethought from us parents, but if we want to do something well then there will be no shortcuts.

I leave you with this quote from the book:

“Let us realize that, along with food, shelter, and clothing, we have another obligation to our children, and that is to affirm their “rightness.” The whole world will tell them what’s wrong with them- loud and often. Our job is to let our children know what’s right about them.”

In case you missed the first post and wonder what I’m referencing, I did a book group for the book “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk“. Each week I’ll be summarizing each chapter and providing examples!

Next Up: Freeing Children From Playing Roles