To praise.. or not to praise?

Parenting can be so confusing! When I started following the RIE approach I began seeing better and better how many of the things we do with our children on a daily basis, most often when we really mean well and don’t see anything wrong with what we’re doing, is possibly not affecting our children the same way that we’re hoping.

In one of Janet Lansbury’s blog-posts she talks about the results of a very interesting Columbia University’s study on praise. There she describes how children were divided into two groups, and both groups got the assignment to solve a series of puzzles. In one of the group the children were praised for being smart, when they had finished dealing with the puzzle they were told: “You must be smart at this”. But the other group was praised for the work they had put into the assignment; “you must have worked really hard”. There was a major difference between these two groups!

When it came to the next puzzle the children were supposed to deal with they were allowed to choose themselves if it would be easier or harder than the first one. The kids that got to hear that they were smart or intelligent chose to solve an easy puzzle again while the others, that were complimented on trying and working hard, chose the harder assignment and felt like seeing if they could solve something more challenging.

In the last phase of the research, all the children were given an assignment that was very difficult, none of them was able to finish it. The children that were praised on working hard were still willing to try it again, they thought it was exciting and felt like they could improve, while the children prised on intelligence were very disappointed, quickly gave up and wanted to quit.


Wow, I found this so remarkable!


The New York Magazine article Janet refers to in her post also talks about a young boy, Thomas, that has an IQ in the top 1%, a seriously high IQ BUT he completely lacks self-confidence.

He will quits assignments very quickly. If he doesn’t manage to finish something in the first attempt he won’t try again. And he’s very unwilling to try something new.

All his life he’s heard that he’s so smart and intelligent, but he has no entrepreneurial nature or courage. Even with no basis in reality, he doubts himself in all fields. He’s terrified of failing.

It seems to be that what many of us do on a daily basis, believing that we’re encouraging our children, giving them self-confidence and validation that they can possibly become even better at something, is possibly very counterproductive.

What the RIE approach teaches is to go a different way when complimenting and encouraging our children.


Instead of giving conventional compliments; Wow great!, Cool!, You’re so smart!, Awww, you’re so pretty!, You’re such a good dancer!, Wow, this is a beautiful picture!, Good job!

We simply say what we see. We neutrally mirror to the child what it’s doing, without any judgment. I really like starting sentences with “I see!”

I see! You built a high tower!

You’re wearing a blue dress, you got dressed all by yourself.

You’re dancing and twirling – ahh, I see, then you put one leg high up in the air

You painted a picture! I see that you used a lot of purple, and there are some yellow circles!

You sang the whole song and have memorized all the text!

Sometimes, simply saying “I see you :)” is the most sincere and loving thing we can say to a child.


These sentences may sound a little dry for those that are hearing about mirroring instead of complimenting for the first time but trust me, on the contrary, it demands us having a connection, being wholeheartedly there and that we take the time to say something about what the child is doing. This way, children get a confirmation that we really see them. We say these sentences sincerely, smile warmly and are proud of them – that always shines through.

We talk about and compliment them for trying and the work that they have put into what they’re doing: “I see that you were focusing when you were painting this picture”, “You tried again and again to climb the stairs and then you did it!”, “It was hard to zip up but the zipper but you did it all by yourself!”,

“You did it!”

One of the most empowering fraise we can say to our children is “you did it!”, often with the addition of “you must be proud of yourself/I see that you’re proud of yourself”. Notice how that’s not the same as saying “you can be proud of yourself..” (who are we to decide if they have a permission to?) or “I’m proud of you”, we don’t want them to do well or finish assignment to make us proud, we want them to be proud of themselves and do things for themselves.

Where do we get our drive?

In RIE there’s a great emphasis on helping children preserving their own inner drive (that they’re born with!). The incentive to do well should come from the child itself but not so it looks for external acceptance, reactions or compliments. Many studies have shown that inner drive or ambition that comes from yourself is much stronger and longer lasting than the ambition thats’s driven by external factors like prizes, recognition or conventional compliments.

The RIE approach emphasizes looking at the work the child is putting into a project rather than focusing on the result and then try to not assess or judge what the child is doing, even though it’s a positive assessment!

If the child is showing us a picture they painted it’s really not our role to say something like “Wow! You did a beautiful job! That’s such a pretty picture!” because who are we to judge? Why are we focusing on the result? Isn’t it relative if it’s beautiful or not?

I mean, who are we to judge whether the blue picture is beautiful rather than the one that is all black?

Painting should be about something completely different than how the picture will look like in the end. Children are much more interested in the process, investigating and looking at how colours, paint and all kinds of materials actually work than to produce something that looks good.

“What happens if I mix the colours? Can I paint with my fingers? What happens if I put together two sheets with paint in between?” These are all examples of thoughts and questions we want the child to immerse themselves in. We want a child to be more willing to experiment and get an output for creativity. Maybe the child wants to pour a whole glass of water over the picture, OK! It maybe doesn’t “look good!” but it’s exciting and interesting, isn’t it?

A child that is completely focused on getting compliments and approval from the environment doesn’t dare to take risks or experiment and has a harder time immersing in play than a child that works from its own drive and gets the freedom to experiment with whatever they are doing, regardless of the result!

Conventional compliments block the natural flow of play

A big part of the RIE approach is to support independent play as best as we can and we greatly respect the importance of play. We want children to play in their own terms and we have to be careful for not take over or let the play begin to revolve around our reaction. What that really means to suppress over-the top reaction or compliments when a child for example looks up at us in the middle of a play or says “mom, look at what I did!”. Instead of saying “woow!! That’s a really cool tower you made! Woohoo! Great!” then we mirror and say something like “Ah, I see, you built a high tower. :)”, “you put all of the men inside the car”.


Do you see the difference?


When we compliment too much for certain aspects of play, we often unknowingly send the message that the play is over, that the goal has been reached (the tower is ready! congratulations!). However, by onyl saying what we, we keep the play open and the child is more likely to continue playing. Maybe the final goal was never to build a high tower, maybe it meant to push the tower down, see how the blocks would fall and possibly order the blocks in a circle and build a fence around something!

The fact is that we don’t know what a child means to do when it’s in the middle of playing but the sad thing is that we also don’t discover it when we take over and block the flow with a reaction that is too big.

Let’s thank them

We thank our children for being helpful. Instead of saying “Great job” when they put their dish in the dishwasher voluntarily, we thank them like we would thank a friend or a family member for helping us out “thanks for taking your dish of the table, it’s very helpful :)”.

Again, we don’t want them to be helpful for us – we want them to be helpful because they want to, want to be a part of something bigger where everyone helps out, want to make us happy because they feel good when we are thankful for something they do. We would never say “great job!” to our spouse if they take out the trash.

Just try it!

There are without a doubt some people that scratch their heads over these phrases and can’t imagine talking to their child like this. A woman that attended one of my workshops expressed real anxiety and sadness when thinking about stopping complimenting her child in a conventional way, stop saying “Well done!” and reacting exaggeratedly. She was so afraid that it would hurt her boy, that this change in communication would simply be too much for him. But our children appreciate these kinds of reaction much more than the conventional “WOW GREAT!” compliments. These simple compliments that we exclaim but don’t have any real meaning.

It’s very valuable for children to feel that we see them notice what their doing and the work that lies behind something they did.

What are the effects?

By praising this way we increase our children’s self-confidence. Our children stop constantly thinking about what others think and don’t seek external recognition as much. They become more willing to experiment and less afraid of failing. And what’s most important, they get to keep their little victories to themselves and experience what it is to feel pride in their own terms.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More posts