The way we congratulate our children can significantly impact their self-image. Positive reinforcement encourages children to strive for success, and an adult's specific word choice and technique makes a great difference. When we respond only to the achievement and not to the effort that has led to it, we deprive a child of opportunities to build the confidence needed for overcoming challenges.
By complimenting actions, in addition to achievement, we can help children gain the strength to take risks. In her article, "Appreciate and Acknowledge Success," Family Coach Judy H. Wright, who is associated with a variety of head-start organizations, explains that, "If their inner self-belief is one of confidence and problem-solving ability, they will be unafraid when unexpected obstacles or opportunities come their way."
Responding to Achievement
Think about the child's age as you prepare to congratulate her. Decide what kind of body language and vocabulary you will use so that your message is age-appropriate. For instance, if your child is 5 years old, your body language may be more exaggerated, your voice more musical and your word choice simpler than if your child is a teen.
Make eye contact with your child, regardless of his age. For younger children, lower yourself to your child's level by bending down, sitting or kneeling, if necessary. Make sure the child is paying attention and noticing your facial expressions, too. Show her that you really care about what she did well and that you are authentically focused on her.
Acknowledge your child's specific achievement. For instance, say, "Wow! You got all the answers right on that test!" instead of using a generic phrase, like, "Good job." Let the child know you are aware of exactly what she did well, and choose to be specific as opposed to making general statements.
Point out the effort your child expended in order to achieve success. Think beyond comments such as, “You are so smart!” Instead, highlight the process that led to the good score. Say something like, "You learned this well! You must have studied hard and paid close attention in class,” or, "All the time we spent with those flashcards really paid off!" Teach your child that hard work leads to accomplishment.
Tell your child how you feel about her achievement. For example, express how proud you are or let her know that her score impresses you because the subject of her test was difficult.
Help your child feel good about her achievement. Explain that she should be happy and proud of herself for a job well done. Encourage her to express her feelings about what she did.
Offer a reward, if you feel it is appropriate. For example, if your child has finished reading 10 books and has met a specific goal you both set, you might treat her to a trip to the library with a stop at an ice-cream shop on the way back. Another type of prize used to congratulate a child might be an educational game she picks out herself at a store or a special dessert you both make at home.