Many parents tell me that they don’t feel they should praise their child for things they should automatically do, like saying “please” and “thank you” or cleaning their rooms. However, research consistently shows that praising children is one of the most powerful ways to encourage a behavior.

Let’s face it, we all like to be told “thank you” for doing something, even when it is part of our job. It doesn’t have to be every time but telling your child “thank you” and letting them know you appreciate their efforts can go a long way.

Two rules for praising children

There are two main rules you should try to follow for effective praise:

  1. Make your praise specific. Instead of just saying “thank you,” say, “thank you so much for cleaning your room. It makes me smile when I walk by it, and I appreciate that you are making an effort to take care of your space. I’m proud of you.”
  2. Praise behavior, not a state of being. Behavior is something people can change, so this is what you need to praise. Instead of saying, “You’re so smart,” for example, say, “You did a great job studying for that test. Your good score really shows me how hard you worked and I’m proud of you!” This helps kids know which behavior you value and makes it more likely they’ll do it again in the future.

Make sure you praise your child’s effort

Research also shows that kids who are simply told that they’re smart or good at something may try less hard at something they don’t know for sure they can do. That’s why it is so important to praise their effort and teach kids that working hard for something is very important. Following this rule can help kids be optimistic about the results of their efforts and believe that they can do things they put their minds to.

I have had to make a conscious effort to change the way I praise my daughters. First, when I started paying attention to how I use praise, I realized I didn’t acknowledge everyday good behaviors as much as I should. Indeed, I have seen a big increase in positive behaviors now that I take the time to say things like, “That was so generous of you to share that toy with your sister. It makes me feel good to see you playing so nicely with her.”

I also found myself saying “Wow, you’re so smart!” or “You’re so good at puzzles!” It is an easy way to praise. However, I’ve tried very hard to instead praise the effort by saying, “You really worked hard at that puzzle even when it got tough. You are really getting good at those with all that work.” I’ve noticed a difference in their response and their pride in a job well done or putting effort into something. Give it a try and see if it changes your child’s behavior or attitude.


Eleanor Mackey, PhD, is a child psychologist and works primarily with the Obesity Institute and Children’s Research Institute. Dr. Mackey is also a mother of two girls.

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