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When Praise Loses Its Value

The Early Show, Harry Smith talks to Diane Debrovner
CBS/The Early Show
It's hard not to praise your children if you're a parent, but believe it or not, there is a point at which you may be complimenting them too much - and sacrificing their own confidence in the process.

Diane Debrovner, senior editor at Parents magazine explains on Monday's The Early Show. She offers some tips on where to draw the line when it comes to positive reinforcement.

Debrovner attributes parent's tendency to praise children for everything to the emphasis on self-esteem in the past decade.

Though there have been no studies on parents' over-praising, Debrovner notes, "I think most of us are guilty at times of saying, 'That's the best block tower I've ever seen!' or 'You're the best painter in the world!' Some people clearly do it more than others, but we are all guilty of not giving our children positive feedback in a way that's most helpful to them."

There are better ways, she says, to compliment kids honestly. She explains, "What experts are learning is that self-esteem is important in a child's development, but it's a question of them feeling competent and that they can do things well and are successful, and we can encourage our kids to do things in a way to make them better at things in their own life.'

Besides, praising kids too much can backfire, she warns. Kids may feel pressured that they'll let their parents down if they're not worthy of more praise.

"One interesting study showed that when kids were constantly told how smart they were, they tried doing easier tasks," Debrovner says. "But when kids were told how clever they were in terms of their strategy of problem solving, they were more inclined to seek out harder challenges.

"It's also important not to be too complimentary because then in the future, when things don't go well, they'll say they didn't try hard enough rather than 'I'm stupid.'"

Also, Debrovner notes that kids do realize at a surprisingly young age the worth of the praise. The parent loses credibility if he or she give the child the same praise for a quickly done drawing and a picture the child worked long and hard on.

She adds, "When parents go to an extreme to keep their kids happy all the time and to bolster their kids in any way they can, kids don't learn what it's like to feel bad. And kids who never experienced being down and overcoming it are more likely to become depressed, etc. Those are important lessons in childhood.

Another problem, she says, is that praise can become addictive. Some children believe nothing they do is significant unless they're rewarded for it verbally. A better strategy, Debrovner suggests, is to teach them to be satisfied with their own good job rather than needing external praise. You want them to be self-motivated as an adult and there won't always be someone patting them on the back. So you want them to take that role on themselves, she says.

Debrovner suggests asking specific questions about the work to teach them to appreciate their own skills. Some questions may be, "What did you like about your poem?" or "How did it feel to be at the top of the jungle gym?"

She offers the following tips for praising kids successfully:

Be specific - Say, "I liked the way you sounded out that sentence" rather than "good job." Or "I see you worked hard to build a house big enough for a large family" rather than, "that's a great block tower." Let child know WHY you are proud of them - it's for their effort.

Speak honestly - Praise your child for tasks that warrant praise - not for things that were clearly easy or done hastily without good effort. In this case, you can give soft, constructive criticism - "you did pretty well, but how do you think you would have done if you'd tried even harder?"

Be strategic - Rather than complimenting kids on tasks that are expected of them, like brushing their teeth or clearing their plates, praise them for things they need to improve. For example, "thanks for putting your blocks away without my having to ask you. It's so much easier when you pitch in." And when your child learns a new skill, call attention to it: "You got dressed all by yourself today."

Accept mistakes - Don't feel compelled to correct children's homework before they hand it in. Parents can't always run to the rescue - you have to let kids realize your love is not contingent on them succeeding all the time.