The Difference Between Praise and Encouragement in Parenting and Why it Matters

Encouragement is more effective than praise in guiding kids’ mindset and behavior. Here’s why:

a mother encouraging her daughter to learn how to ride a bike

We want our children to feel how proud we are of them because, after all, we’re proud when they do their best or achieve a goal.

But how can we communicate our admiration in a way that expresses our true sentiments and inspires our kids to want to do better in the future? 

On the surface, it may seem like simply showing our delight in our children’s accomplishments is enough. And there’s no doubt our children appreciate it when we acknowledge their achievements.

But often the message we intend to convey to our kids – through praise – is interpreted in unintended ways by our kids. What we really want to do is use words of encouragement to our children to help them continue to grow and succeed. 

What’s the difference between praise and encouragement?

On the surface, praise and encouragement seem to be nearly identical reactions to an accomplishment. But there are, in fact, subtle differences. 

And most importantly, there’s a big difference in the way our children internalize them. 

When kids are praised more than encouraged, they tend to develop a mindset that seeks external motivation (think = rewards, grades, compliments). Someone with this mindset is unlikely to step up and take initiative unless something will be given to them in return. 

Whereas, when a child is primarily encouraged, research shows kids develop internal motivation (they’re led from within to accomplish a goal free of any incentives). This mindset serves kids well as they don’t need anything from other people to find motivation. 

This chart illustrates the main contrasting differences between praise and encouragement:

Praise Encouragement
Focuses on the end result or accomplishmentFocuses on the effort or persistence
A judgment that typically includes a subjective opinionAn observation or question
Non-specific and tends to obviously exaggerateSpecific and does not exaggerate
Can cause kids to lose sight of what they want to achieveCauses kids to reflect internally about their accomplishments, progress, and goals
Kids begin to feel they need praise from others to be successfulKids do not need encouragement to feel successful, but they do feel supported
Diminishes self-esteem and self-confidenceBoosts self-esteem and self-confidence

The first row is perhaps what distinguishes praise and encouragement the most. Praise focuses solely on what was achieved, whereas encouragement focuses on effort.

By placing the focus on effort, we are inviting kids to consider what led them to success so they can hopefully replicate it in the future. It also shows that we are noticing their hard work and that we consider this to be more important than the outcome. 

If we only focus on the outcome, kids may do whatever it takes, including cheating or lying, to get to the intended goal. 

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What are examples of praise vs. encouragement?

What does praise and encouragement look like in real life? Here are a few contrasting statements that show the difference:

Praise Encouragement
“I’m proud of you for making a goal!”“All that hard work during practices appears to have paid off. It must have felt good to have scored a goal.”
“What a beautiful drawing!”“The way you blended the green and blue colors is very unique. What do you like most about this drawing?”
“You’re so smart!”“I’ve seen you practicing your Spanish vocabulary a lot over the past few weeks. Do you think that helped you do well on the test?”
“Good girl!”“Putting your dishes away really helps when it comes time to clean the kitchen. Thank you.”
“Good job!”“You figured it out all by yourself.”
“I’m so proud of you!”“You should be proud of yourself.”

What are the drawbacks of praise?

Many parents don’t understand why praising their children has drawbacks.

After all, their children often glow with satisfaction when they hear their parents say “good job.”

Kids do enjoy getting praise. Who wouldn’t? It feels good to receive validation. 

The problem with praise is that it creates dependency. It’s natural for kids to seek the acceptance and approval of their parents – the most important adults in their lives.

But too much praise can cause children to feel that their parents only approve of them – or love them – when they accomplish a goal or task. 

So they seek out opportunities to achieve simply so they can receive more praise and thus their parents’ approval. Take the praise or reward away, and the child may feel they have let down their parents, making the accomplishment no longer desirable.

Praise can also create competition. Siblings may unconsciously strive to receive more praise and recognition than their sister or brother with the goal of obtaining more of their parents’ love and acceptance. 

But what if I find it hard to stop praising my kids?

Let’s be real for a minute…it can be difficult to stop using phrases like “Good job!” or “I love it!” when our child achieves a goal or shows us something they’ve created.

After years of conditioning, it’s like our minds are programmed with these responses. 

Most likely, these are phrases our own parents, teachers, and coaches used with us as a way to express their delight in our achievements. 

So the words just spill out.

But don’t worry. If we slip and find ourselves responding with these trite statements, it’s not the end of the world.

Especially if we follow them up with words of encouragement – focusing on the specifics of our daughter’s drawing, for example, or the work our son put into building a boxcar. 

The important thing is to turn our attention from the goal they’ve achieved to the process they followed to get there, helping our children reflect on their perseverance and effort. 

The more we invite our children to do this, the more they will begin doing it themselves.

See related:

How to Raise Kids Who Are Motivated to Work Hard on Their Own

How to Motivate Kids to Do Things They Don’t Want to Do

Encouraging a Growth Mindset in Children: Resources for Parents

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About Kerry Flatley

Hi! I’m Kerry, the mother of two girls and a certified parent educator. I believe it is possible for parents to have a supportive, loving, and warm relationship with their kids while raising them to be independent and ultimately self-sufficient. Over the years, I’ve read numerous books and articles that support this belief and I’ve put these ideas into practice with my own kids. Read more about me and Self-Sufficient Kids here.