Focus on behaviour or effort when motivating children to build good character and self-esteem
By Lea Wee, The Sunday Times, 29 Sep 2013
Ms Noorazlina Noraswad recalls that she was hardly praised as a child.
"My parents didn't want me to think too highly of myself," says the 40-year- old staff nurse and a mother of three.
When she became a parent, she was determined to be more encouraging.
She has read about how praising children can make them more confident and motivate them to behave better - and believes it.
Every opportunity she finds to praise her three daughters, aged three to eight, she does it: doing well in school, sharing things with one another and even looking pretty in a nice dress.
She says: "I don't think it gives them an inflated sense of self."
Her mother, housewife Mariyahma Zainal, 60, says she was stingy with praises for her five children because that was how her own parents brought her up.
She says: "Their thinking was, if you praise too much, the children will think they are very clever and won't want to listen to their parents."
Compared to previous generations, many Singaporeans today tend to be more generous when it comes to praising their children.
But they have to be careful not to overdo it.
While the merits of praise in improving children's confidence and motivation have long been recognised, in recent years, the dangers of overpraising has come under scrutiny in the West.
Studies show that frequent and often empty praise could undermine a child's self-esteem.
Overpraising children - especially those with lower self-esteem - for their personal qualities ("You're such a great person") rather than their efforts ("You must have worked hard for this") may cause them to feel more ashamed if they fail and further lower their self-esteem.
But this is not a problem Singaporean parents need to worry about at the moment.
Mr Brian Poh, a psychologist from the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Institute of Mental Health, says: "Anecdotal evidence in our clinic tells us that Singaporean parents are not too lavish with their praise."
In fact, parents interviewed feel that they should be prudent with their praises, otherwise they would not be effective.
Human resource manager Achaibar Gupta, 35, says he praises his two elder boys, aged seven and five, only when they do "exceptionally well" in school. He also praises his youngest son, aged two, if he completes a task, such as keeping his toys after playing with them.
But he says he will not praise his children if they need prompting to do things such as completing their homework, packing their schoolbags or sharing things with one another.
"I will praise them when they are able to do these things independently."
But experts say parents do not have to wait until a child has done something perfectly to dish out a compliment.
In fact, they do not have to worry about overpraising their children or praise losing its effect, if it is being doled out in the right way, says senior psychologist Lois Teo from KK Women's and Children's Hospital.
Praise will not lose its impact if it focuses on a specific behaviour or effort ("It was great when you shared your colour pencils with your sister") and not on the person or his general attributes ("I love you, you are so great and I'm proud of you").
Specific praises are more effective than vague praises. They boost self-esteem and build good behaviour.
Says Dr Teo: "Parents are showing their children how to think and talk positively about themselves."
When praises are dished out in the right way, it may even be possible to compliment a child for looking good, which is an area some parents here tend to shun away from, for fear of grooming little vainpots.
Communications manager and mother of three
Isabelle Lee, 38, praises her three children, aged nine, seven and one, for various things but generally avoids praising them on their physical appearance because she feels "there's no need to".
When her children ask her if they look good in a particular outfit or accessory, she would usually reply according to whether she thinks it is appropriate for their age. For instance, she would tell her nine- year-old daughter she does not look nice in heels because she thinks her daughter should not be wearing heels at that age.
Ms Jessie Ooh, a lead psychologist from the department of paediatrics at the National University Hospital, however, feels that parents should praise their children in all aspects of their development, including their looks.
"As they are growing up, children have needs in all domains - physical, emotional, social and intellectual.
"Leaving out any domain may affect the child's bonding with their parents and over-emphasis on any specific domain is not ideal for his holistic development."
When children seek affirmation from their parents ("Do I look good in this shirt?", "Am I the best dancer in class?"), it is usually because they feel safe to pose the question to their most loved ones.
Hence, it is best to reply in the affirmative, she says, without diverting from the truth. For instance: "You look better in the other shirt" or "I love that you followed the rhythm well in that dance routine".
If wearing pants is the latest trend, and your child asks if he looks good in one and gets a reply in the affirmative, it gives him more confidence to join his friends in wearing the pants and feeling socially accepted.
To ensure the praise is sincere, Ms Ooh says parents can also focus on the efforts that their children have made in looking good ("I like the way you coordinate the colours of your clothes"), rather than the results ("You look so pretty/handsome").
Praises can also focus on the child's strengths ("I like the way you perform this dance step").
If you think certain things, such as heels, may not be suitable for your child's age, tell him or her about its potential dangers and suggest alternatives.
Knowing how to do it is one thing. Practising it in real life is another, as Ms Bundle Goh, a polytechnic lecturer in her 30s, has realised.
She has been consciously trying to praise her three boys, aged four to nine, for their behaviour and efforts, instead of for their personal attributes, after she read the book, Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success by Carol Dweck, three years ago.
The book is among those that emphasise the importance of effort over personal attributes.
Yet to this day, Ms Goh still has to remind herself to put into practice the tips she had read in the book.
"It's so much easier to just say 'clever boy'."
Compliment the effort, not intelligence
It is not uncommon for parents to say this to their children when they do well in something.
But this kind of praise has been shot down by a number of studies.
Among the most famous are those done by Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller, psychologists from Columbia University in the United States.
Their studies, published in a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1998, were conducted on more than 400 fifth-grade students, aged around 10 years old, from various ethnic, racial and socio-economic backgrounds.
Each study began with the students working on a puzzle that was challenging but easy enough for all of them to do quite well.
The researchers praised one-third of the children for their intelligence, saying: "Wow, you got X number correct. That's a really good score. You must be smart at this."
Another third of the children were praised for their effort: "You must have worked really hard".
The final third were simply praised for their performance, with no comments on why they were successful.
Subsequently, the researchers asked the students if they wanted to try a challenging task from which they could learn a lot (but at which they might not succeed) or an easier task (on which they were sure to do well and look smart).
The majority of the students who were praised for being intelligent the first time round went for the easier task that would allow them to continue looking smart.
Most of the students who were praised for their effort (as many as 90 per cent in some studies) wanted the more challenging task.
Students in the third group, who had not been praised for intelligence or effort, chose one or the other task equally.
These findings, say the authors, suggest that when people praise children for their intelligence, they are asking them to look smart and not risk making mistakes.
On the other hand, when children are praised for the effort and hard work that leads to achievement, they want to keep engaging in that process. They are not diverted from the task of learning by a concern with how smart they might, or might not, look.