Science-backed ways to use praise to boost confidence 

“How do children construct views of themselves and their place in the world? Children’s social relationships turn out to be critical. For example, children develop higher self-esteem when their parents treat them warmly. But they develop lower self-esteem when their parents lavish them with inflated praise.” – University of Amsterdam, 2017 

Science tells us that the right praise can boost confidence, empathy, perseverance, and character. Wrong praise and too many rewards can turn kids into little narcissists and reduce resilience and motivation. That doesn’t mean that children don’t need our accolades, but we must deliver them.the right way. And I learned one of the best ways from one of my sons.

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When my two youngest children were preschoolers we had a family trauma: our youngest son, Zach, was the same height as our middle son, Adam. The comments from strangers, “Oh, what cute twins!” were certainly not boosting Adam’s confidence. In fact, his self-esteem was taking a steep nose-dive. Why would any five-year old want anyone to think his three-year old brother was his twin? To help him recognize Adam’s own special qualities, I began focusing on a physical attribute that was uniquely his.

It wasn’t hard, Adam has gorgeous blue eyes are quite unusual in our brown-eyed family. So over the next few weeks I began intentionally complimenting his asset. I did make sure my praise was genuine (this wasn’t hard: the kid really does have beautiful eyes), and I just quietly reminded him of his asset once or twice a day.

“Oh Adam, your eyes are so beautiful.” Or: “We’re so lucky to have a little boy with such pretty blue eyes.”

My husband came on board: “Hey, do you think that great-looking blued-eyed kid of mine wants to shoot some hoops with me?”

His grandparents were brought into the plan, “How’s my Grandson with the gorgeous blue eyes?”

Even his brothers began introducing him as “The brother with the great eyes.”

It wasn’t until the first day of kindergarten about three weeks later that I knew Adam really believed our praise. He came home literally bouncing.

“How was school, Adam?” I asked.

“Oh, it was so great, Mom!” he said. Without missing a beat he added, “Somebody must have told the teacher about my beautiful blue eyes.”

I paused, a bit startled (I certainly hadn’t said anything to his teacher) and asked, “Why do you think so, Adam?” “Oh, she knows all right,” he explained. “She made sure I sit everyday at the blue table–probably to match my blue eyes!”

And he barreled out the door with a smile that could light the world. I knew then he had recognized another of his great strengths and didn’t need reminding. He’d added another new positive image inside himself forever.

Adam helped me discover a simple way to boost a child’s self-confidence: Identify a legitimate asset or talent in my child that deserves recognition and remind him of that asset until he can remind himself. (Adam really did have beautiful eyes). Directly help him recognize a strength helped him recognize the trait and internalize the positive image. And once his confidence increased I tuned into addressing other strengths like his creativity, writing abilities, and humor.

I’ve since used the same confidence-building strategy with dozens of children I’ve taught or counseled. I’ve also shared it with hundreds of parents in my workshops over the years. I can’t tell you how often I’ve received an email from a mom saying: “I never believed that tip would work until I tried it. What a difference in made on my child’s self-esteem and behavior.”

5 Steps to Praise to Boost Confidence and Resilience

Here is how you can use that simple secret to help unlock your children’s awareness of their personal talents and boosting their self-confidence. Just remember to use the secret about a minute a day for at least 21 days to achieve the best results. Once the child recognizes his own strength, you don’t have to keep on praising. He’s internalized the image and will use it to help him thrive.

1. Identify your child’s legitimate strengths

Take a moment to really think about your child’s strengths, positive traits or assets. Over the next few days list them. Here are a few: artistic, musical, kind, honest, reliable, graceful, organized, friendly, positive, sensitive, courageous, spiritual, loving, sensitive, resilient, persevering, hard-working. My girlfriend decided to keep an ongoing profile of each of her children’s strengths. The leather journal is now a fabulous family keepsake.

I’ve studied resilience for most of my career and discovered that too often our parenting counters research. We lavish children with praise and reward them for money and trophies, but our loving efforts fall short of building their thriving potential. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t praise kids, but we need to do so the right way-finding their letitia strengths and acknowledging them. In my book, Thrivers The Surprising Reasons Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine, I state the reason. “The fact is, identifying our children’s Core Assets-their unique strengths and qualities-can be one of our most important parenting tasks. It helps us honor our children for who they are, not who we want them to be. Showing our respect for who they are is the great way to help kids respect themselves. It also unlaces competence, peak performance, and thriving abilities and reduces emptiness and burnout, but it starts by discovering who are magnificent kids are and then using those findings to help them develop accurate views of their assets and limitations.”

My  “CORE ASSET SURVEY” of dozens of children’s strengths, talents, and assets is available in Chapter 1 of THRIVERS. Or use the acronym TALENT on page 39 in THRIVERS along with practical ways to determine his natural qualities and nurture it in the same book section.

How to Discover Your Child’s Strengths 

T = Tenacity. The child shows determination and perseverance to succeed at the task involving his asset.

A = Attention. The child is easily absorbed in the task and focuses longer than when compared to other strength areas or Core Assets.

L = Learning. The child learns quicker and easier when using the Core Asset.

E = Eagerness. The child is motivated and energized to be an active participant in the task, and doesn’t need adult probing or reward.

N = Need. The child is possessive about the Core Asset, “It’s my thing.” The asset is a confidence boost, relaxer or fulfiller of a positive need.

T = Tone. The child sounds excited, proud or joyous when talking about the asset.

2. Choose 1 or 2 legitimate, positive qualities to strengthen right now

Select one or two attributes, assets or qualities you want your child to recognize about herself right away. Make sure the strengths are already present in your child and are not ones you wish were true about her. Jot down the terms you’ll use you point out the strengths to your child. Use the same term every time you praise the quality.You might also pass those strengths on to your parenting partner, teacher, grandparent or other adult who cares about your kid and can help you reinforce the quality.

3. Praise quality or strength only when deserved

At the beginning you can start giving one strength messages a day and gradually work your way up to two to four strength reminders. Flooding your child with too many compliments a day is probably not valuable. They begin to lose their effectiveness and become too predictable.

Usually it takes at least three weeks for a new image to develop, so keep praising your child’s strengths for at least 21 days (or as long as it takes until the child internalizes the trait. You’ll know that moment because the child often reminds you of his trait. And you’ll see a change in behavior: he is more confident and doesn’t need your reminders!

Compliment the child only when his actions deserve recognition and you mean it. Children are great at picking up the genuine from the insincere.

4. Describe specific examples of the strength in action

Point out examples when your child displays the strength. He may not be able to see these strengths on his own. So, be specific in your praise so your child knows exactly what he did to deserve recognition. And don’t forget to address your child’s character traits (her kindness, his tenacity, her patience, his sense of justice. In a culture that stresses rank, score and grades, character is lying low on our priority lists.

For instance:

“You are so graceful when you dance. Your hands and body move so smoothly to the music.”

“You’re very artistic; your drawings always have such great details and color combinations.”

“You are so caring. I noticed how you stopped to ask that older woman if she needed help crossing the street.”

5. Find ways to nurture strength

Now help your child recognize that quality. If your child is artistic, then enroll her in the art class. Get her the extra set of paints and brushes and take her to the museums. If he’s athletic, put him on that soccer team.  Children don’t need all those extra activities, so be a bit more selective. The secret to building confidence and increasing resilience is to nurture your child’s natural nature. Finding your child’s natural talent, skills, passions, or qualities and then helping him or her develop them is one of the greatest gifts you can give a child. No, the goal is nott the Olympic Medal or Nobel Peace Prize, but just helping your children recognize their special gifts.

Every child deserves to wake up each morning knowing she is valued and loved. By giving the right praise that is based on science, you will not only enhance your child’s strength awareness but also increase his self-knowledge and confidence and abilities to thrive..

It’s another simple but powerful parenting secret, so pass it on. Using it is one more way we will raise confident, mentally and morally strong kids who are ready and able to take on an uncertain new world.

I’m so excited to announce the publication of my new book, Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine on March 2. For forty years I’ve wondered why some kids have a strong, “We’ve got this!” attitude and discovered the science of resilience. Thrivers are made, not born. Thrivers is packed we science-backed ways we raise mentally and morally strong kids who are prepared to live and thrive in an uncertain world. I hope you like it!

Follow me on Twitter @micheleborba or on my website at MicheleBorba.com