What is the Difference between Praise and Encouragement?

Did you know too much blanket praise can undermine a child’s confidence and motivation?

Praise sounds like…

  • “Good girl!”
  • “You are so smart.”
  • “You are such a pretty little girl!”
  • “You are strong and handsome.”
  • “You are an amazing athlete!”
  • “You are so good at sharing.”
  • “You are super good at math.”

Sounds good, right? Familiar, perhaps, as you praise your child all through the day?encouragement vs praise

Rethinking How and When To Praise Children

Consider this, praise of this kind can actually displace just what our children need the most.

Yes, displaces.

As we give what feels like encouragement to our children in just the above way, we are undermining their ability to be intrinsically motivated–firing from inside themselves as they tap into their strengths and abilities to, on their own, pursue all things in life; we are undermining their growth as a strong, inner directed self.

If we tell a child “Good job!” when they willingly get dressed in the morning, what does this communicate when they have a hard time getting dressed the next morning? That they are doing a ‘bad job?’ This is what a child ‘hears’, and it does little to help them decide, on their own, to want to get dressed in the morning!

If we tell a child “You are so smart!” when they bring home an assignment they got 100% on, how do they feel when they come home with one marked with 75%? Or when they find themselves struggling with homework? If we’ve told them they are so smart, then they more likely will feel a failure when they struggle–”I’m supposed to be so smart. Why can’t I DO this??”

If we tell our daughter how pretty she looks as she prances out in her frilly red dress, what are we communicating is important? How she looks? How could this influence her over the years…as a teen…if how she looks becomes the go-to response she gets from us?

Encouragement: What Children Need To Grow Confident and Capable

What CAN we do to encourage children without using evaluative praise?

Describing what you see rather than praising is essential for our children to grow intrinsically motivated and to feel authentically affirmed. Here’s how that can look:

  • “You chose the red frilly dress! And you buttoned all those buttons by yourself. That took a lot of work.”
  • “Wow. That took a lot of brain work to come home with 100% on your assignment. I bet you feel really good about how your hard work paid off.”
  • “Look how strong your muscles can be! What effort it takes to carry the bag all the way up the stairs. I appreciate your help.”
  • “What a commitment you’ve had to your training. I can see how happy you are to make the team at school!”
  • “Math can be hard! Look at all the problems you’ve accomplished. You’ve concentrated on this for a long time.”
  • “Your friend is happy you shared your toy! What a kind thing to do.”
  • “It takes a lot of courage to climb up so high. When you are ready, you can give it a go.”

How is encouragement different from praise?

Now you are focusing on their abilities/strengths/qualities–things you want to encourage for they help our children become more confident, feel more capable, able to take risks, to rally from mistakes, to move through struggle. To know “I can really use my brain” sets a child up to work through a tough homework problem in an empowering way. Hearing “You are so smart!” can leave a child at a loss when they don’t do well on a test, or when they can’t figure out a problem. Using “You CAN be” instead of “You ARE…” gives a child the chance to be something else. Empowering!

Changing from Praise to Encouragement

Take time today to pause as your child shows you the work they’ve done. Describe what you see–including the feelings of your child. Notice the L-O-N-G brush strokes across their painting and say something. Notice the colors they chose and tell them that’s what you see. Pay attention to what they called upon to get through a tough moment and name it for them. Ask them questions about what it took to accomplish what they are grinning from ear to ear about. Use struggles as a time to name and affirm their feelings, rather than find something to praise in order to ‘make them feel better.’ Use struggles as a time to identify the inner strengths they are trying to tap into to succeed–”That puzzle is really difficult. It is frustrating for you! I can see you are working really hard to figure it out…”

Growing children who feel empowered, authentically affirmed, and intrinsically motivated is key for living well all through life.

It makes your job as a parent easier as your child can now rally through struggles more successfully, can call upon their own selves to solve something, can make healthier choices with peers, and feel truly competent and capable. Give it a try and notice what is different as you focus on your child’s abilities, their process, the qualities you want the most. What a gift to your child; what a gift to your relationships.

©2014 Alice Hanscam

Alice Hanscam is a regular contributor to the Positive Parenting Connection. Alice is a PCI Certified Parent Coach®, Certified Screamfree Trainer, and owner of Denali Parent Coaching. Visit her website , facebook page or contact her at [email protected] for more information.

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6 thoughts on “What is the Difference between Praise and Encouragement?

  1. Brilliant. At times this is a very challenging distinction to make, especially when you feel you are encouraging them with affirming praise based comments, such as ‘well done, that is so clever’. I realise how often I fall into this trap and appreciate the guidance for how I can think about this differently. Cheers

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment and share what is common for all of us–falling into the trap! The more we look to describing what we see, the easier it gets to pause…consider…and then say something that can be far more meaningful. I appreciate knowing this article encourages you!

  2. Thank you for this wonderful post and helpful advice on how to encourage my child more effectively. I just wish other people around me understood this better, but at least I can still be a strong, positive, encouraging voice for my son.

    • Yes! What you do matters and can actually help others along the way, as well. I love how you say you can be a ‘strong, positive, encouraging voice’ for your son–he is blessed. Thank you for commenting and letting me know this encourages you to continue parenting well!

  3. What a gem of an article!! Thank you for providing me with a new twist on how I approach my daughter’s accomplishments, abilities, and self-discovery. I found the information extremely valuable. :)
    Meg

  4. Thank you for letting me know this has encouraged you! Have fun looking at what your daughter does through a bit of a different ‘lens’–and let me know what you notice is different as a result…

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