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The 8 Worst Ways to Encourage Children

Kids don't want to be coddled by encouragement. They want authentic that they can trust.

All parents mean well. But there’s a difference in giving good, helpful feedback and unhelpful, misguided praise. It’s similar to the difference in the way a CEO and a marketing department approach the success of a company, explains licensed clinical social worker and father of two Daniel Huerta. The CEO looks at the way a company runs and taps into its essential structure and character. The marketing department worries more about how the company is presented in the world. In an earnest and honest attempt to make their children genuinely happy, some parents take a marketing approach, pasting up psychological billboards that say “Great kid!” instead of looking to the fundamental characteristics that make their kid great.

“When giving feedback we’re placing a label on it instead of having a growth mindset,” Huerta told Fatherly. “But the company — how it runs, all those details, that’s what keeps a company running. There’s a lot more than just the billboard.”

Huerta notes that kids will still be subject to billboard interpretations from the outside world. But parents can supplement that superficial feedback with more thoughtful statements about who their children are and how the work. And they can start by weaning themselves off the following well-intended words of encouragement.

Toddlers Don’t Know What “Good Job” Means

When young kids say their first words, walk, or even go to the bathroom for the first time, telling them they did a good job isn’t a bad thing, it’s just meaningless. Toddlers don’t know what good means and they certainly have no clue what a job is — no matter how many tiny suits they own. Conveying clear positive emotions and naming what they did is a more effective way of encouraging them, Huerta recommends. Saying “You’re walking!” with a beaming smile communicates that they did well, offering words to their experience.

Don’t Tell Kids That Everyone Wins

Huerta is not only a dad, he’s a coach, and has encountered pee wee basketball leagues that attempt to protect kids from failure by not keeping score. When he tried to play by these rules it became clear that the kids were missing out. “When you compete you get to see what you need to work on,” Huerta explains. When he began keeping score privately and sharing it with his team, he was surprised to find that even when they lost by 20 to 30 points, they still reacted positively. Being losers taught them was that they needed to practice more, not to feel bad about themselves. It similarly taught Huerta that he needed to change leagues after the season was over.

Give Honest Feedback And Don’t Spare Their Feelings

Kids are going to play soccer games, perform in piano recitals, and complete class projects where they don’t always excel (or even succeed). However, parents don’t have to choose between being hard on them or being dishonest. They can find the middle by reflecting deeper on what children are doing. So rather than tell a kid they’re a good singer when they’re not, caretakers can point out how brave they are for putting themselves out there and trying. By playing to the wrong strengths, moms and dads can set children up to get hurt when they find out that they’re not naturally gifted.

“They find out they’re not that good of a singer, they’re crushed, because that’s not what they’re parents said,” Huerta says. “What that ends up creating is a mistrust of parents when they’re looking for true feedback.”

Don’t Encourage The Same Talents in Siblings

Two kids from the same parents can have entirely different personalities, and as a result, different strengths are likely to emerge. One sibling may excel at sports while another might be excellent at performing arts. When both kids are pushed into soccer, but only one gets kudos from the grandparents, things might get a little dicey. Parents can bridge these gaps by recognizing that kids care more about being special than comparable to their brothers and sisters.

Don’t Constantly Encourage Kids To Face Their Fears

Pushing kids to face every fear can be unnecessarily scary for kids, but not pushing them at all can hold them back. But parents can do better by only encouraging kids to face things they’ll be happier not avoiding in the long run. With shy kids, for instance, you don’t have to push them to be more outgoing, you just have to ask them if they’d like to be less nervous.

“Another way to approach this is asking them if they’d like to feel more comfortable in social situations, and asking if they’d be willing to try,” Huerta suggests. More often than not, the answer is yes.

Don’t Encourage Kids To Say “Please” and “Thank You”

It’s unnatural for young children to see outside of their own perspective. They have to learn this over time. But when parents incentivize kids to blindly say please and thank you without having conversations about what those statements mean and why they matter, kids miss an opportunity develop empathy, sensitivity, and self-awareness. As adorable as it is when kids are blindly polite, it’s more productive when they start to understand why people want to hear those words.

Don’t Play to a Child’s Vanity

Huerta’s daughter is told she’s pretty by a lot of people, and it’s not practical for him and his spouse to act like she doesn’t hear it. Ignoring the compliment completely may make it difficult for kids to trust their parents’ feedback in the future. Piling on to compliments risks instilling an unhealthy obsession with their physical appearance. The best thing parents can do to strike a balance is to build on these physical compliments, and like improvisers saying “yes and,” parents can ask “what else?”

Don’t Give Empty Compliments

The reason children tend to trust the feedback of their peers more than their parents is that their friends are willing to say, “Hey, that stinks.” Ultimately kids don’t want to be coddled, they want to be noticed. And when they’re only being told they’re doing a good job constantly as a way of shielding them from sadness, it becomes white noise, at best. Worst case scenario, kids are set up for long-term disappointment chasing successes that were not exactly real.

“It’s better to observe and really be a noticer. ‘Hey I noticed you worked really hard on that project,” Huerta says. “You’re giving them authentic feedback that’s very productive rather than a waste of oxygen.”