“You are smart.” Vs. “I can see you worked really hard on this report.”

“You are pretty.” Vs. “I like the way you fixed your hair today.”

“You are a good boy.” Vs. “You remembered to take out the garbage.”

“You are talented.” Vs. “You certainly seem to enjoy playing your trumpet.”

We know that focusing on the positive is a great way to encourage a child, but there is a subtly important difference between praise and encouragement. Take a close look at the comments above. The statements on the left are praise; positive labels we reward a child with when she has done something special. Picture your child coming home with a perfect math test. “Look how smart you are!” you beam. Naturally, it feels great to hear such a positive evaluation.

But, even though many children love to hear praise, it can also produce some undesirable stress and pressure. Kids can easily get caught up in trying to keep the praise coming: “I need to always be the best; I can’t make mistakes; I must stand out and be better than others.”

When test-time rolls around again, the pressure is really on:  “Will I ace the test again, and will I still be smart in your eyes?” The essential problem with praise is that it teaches the child to be concerned about what others think of him. That is why children who are accustomed to praise can become discouraged when they don’t succeed and get the special recognition they expect. Some children even give up when they sense they are not the best. Since I’m not getting any special recognition, why bother trying at all? This is why many experts believe praise should be changed to words of encouragement. We want our children to feel good about themselves, even if no one is noticing how special they are, even if someone is not particularly happy with them, and even if they are not perfect, or high- achieving.

Those opening statements on the right are words of encouragement, not praise. Note the subtle differences. Instead of focusing on results, encouragement focuses on effort and improvement. A child with a not-so-perfect test score can still be feel good about what they learned, how much they enjoyed their task, and see where their mistakes are without losing self esteem. They are now primed to keep going.

Another important difference is that encouragement focuses on the child’s behaviour— what they do -- rather than the child herself:  “I can change what I do, but not who I am.”

Encouragement keeps kids focused on enjoying life, working towards improvement, and feeling a sense of belonging and importance.