Which is better – Confidence from praise or encouragement?


Where does confidence come from?  Especially self-confidence?  When I asked a group of students this question we received many different answers, but the one that concerned me the most was – “when others complement us”.   The long term effect of too much praise is not confidence, it can end up in dependance.

This does not mean that praise is out – in fact, praise is an important part of demonstrating to our children or anyone for that matter our admiration for them and even our affection.  But with too much praise for too little effort, children especially can become as dependent on praise as their motivating factor as they can on sugar.  Nothing wrong with sugar – a little bit – but too much is so bad for us.  Too much praise creates a child that is only willing to do just enough to get by with mediocre effort, rather than independent with the ability to set goals and put in the time and effort to reach the goal based on self discipline.

Allow me to give you a grown up example of how getting use to praise for the work we do results in a dependency on praise rather than self – motivation and discipline.  How many of us have seen individuals who were conditioned athletes who became dependent on being in the limelight, receiving the admiration of others – who after losing that trigger, no longer took care of themselves physically and simply turned into couch potatoes?  This is not limited to professional athletes – it includes anyone who has been rewarded for victories and accomplishments and then became dependent on that kind of praise to motivate themselves to stay in shape.

The exact same thing can happen to a child who becomes dependent on external praise to build their confidence.  When the praise is not coming in enough quantity or for an act that they come to believe they should get it for – they give up, not interested in the activity or feel like a less valuable person – resulting in even deeper issues.

What is the answer?

  • Look for the good in our children
  • Praise the effort and the behavior
  • Emphasize self-pride for accomplishments rather than external rewards
  • Focus on the process of learning*
  • Communicate expectations for self (goal setting)

One more thought on the process of learning.  Praising for the final accomplishment – trophy / blue ribbon / new belt in Martial arts / leads a child down the path that they ‘have to win or be better than everyone around them’.  They may develop warped values regarding fairness to the point that they are discouraged from trying or continuing their quest.

Learning a new skill, whether it is physical like riding a bike or swimming,  mental like reading or doing math or social like sharing or conflict resolution – all of these require gradual steps that build on each other. Encouraging our children to enjoy this process or ‘practice’ by praising that effort and the incremental improvements, support their growth in learning, excelling and being confident.