Praise has taken a beating lately.

Several recent studies show that over-praising children can make them less able to handle adversity, less successful, and feel less confident. The headlines are enough to scare and confuse parents trying to motivate their kids while also building and maintaining self-esteem.

Those studies, though, didn’t say that we should stop praising children. They said we should be careful how we do it. Here are a few tips that might help:

 Praise the process instead of the results. Tom Lehrer, a math professor who was also a comedian back in the 1960s, joked that the key to new math was to understand what you’re doing rather than to get the right answer. That’s a good approach with praise, even though it feels backward.

Let’s compare two children – one gets A’s without trying, and one gets B’s by working hard. The parents of Mr. A tell him how smart he is, but he doesn’t receive praise for the process because he really doesn’t engage in it. Finally, he hits a class where he can’t breeze through; since he never learned to study, he’s suddenly lost and doesn’t feel so smart after all. He starts to believe his intelligence is a fraud, and he’s afraid other people will figure it out, too. His self-esteem dips and he stops challenging himself because he’s afraid to fail.

Our B student, though, has to work for good grades. When he doesn’t understand something, he knows studying will help him eventually get it. He’s learned to rely on the process of working hard; in the long run, he’ll end up with better grades than Mr. A. More importantly, he’ll feel better about himself because he’s learned tools to get what he wants – in this case, good grades.

That’s why it’s important to praise process over results. Don’t say, “You got another A? You’re so smart!” Instead, try this: “You’re such a hard worker. That extra studying seems to be paying off.”

 Attention increases behavior. If you praise your child for doing what you want (studying, cleaning his room, being nice to his brothers and sisters, etc.), those behaviors will increase. If you point out what your child does wrong (bad grades, fighting with brothers and sisters, throwing towels on the floor, etc.), those behaviors will increase. It sounds simple, and it’s not always easy to do, but attention to a behavior is like air to a fire. Blow on the fire, and it becomes a huge blaze. Keep air away from the fire, and it eventually extinguishes.

 Be specific with praise. Children see the world differently than we do, so we have to teach them specifically what we expect and how it’s supposed to be done.

For example, suppose a mother tells her son to clean his room. Two hours later, she finds him lying in a pile of clean clothes on his bed playing a video game. She might be angry, but he thinks he cleaned the room. After all, the clothes are no longer littered across the floor. It doesn’t do the mom any good to get mad; that won’t help her son understand what she wanted from him. However, the mom could use specific praise to help her son feel good about himself and still learn what she wants. She might say, “Thank you for picking the clean clothes up off the floor. Now, I’d like for you to put them in the closet.” And when he does that, she should praise that specific behavior, too.

This also works with bigger issues. A common complaint of parents in sessions with me is that their kids don’t respect them. When we explore this, it often turns out that the kids don’t know what parents mean by respect. If parents think it’s disrespectful for children to chew gum while talking, for example, they need to be specific about that behavior, and then they need to praise the child when they’re not doing it. (Remember the attention principle above.) When we explore in session what respect means to both parents and children, families work together to identify behaviors they like and don’t like. That makes it clear for everyone and often makes a huge difference for the family.

 Keep praise appropriate to the situation. One recent study focused on parents whose praise is “inflated” – in other words, over-the-top phrases like “Amazing!” or “Perfect!” or “What an incredibly beautiful drawing!” When you react with that much enthusiasm, you’re actually putting pressure on the child to achieve that level of praise again, and as seen with Mr. A above, they probably don’t know how to do it.

Over-inflated praise also sounds to kids like their behavior’s an exception to what they normally do, which makes them feel like they do something wrong the rest of the time. Think about how you’d react if your boss dropped by your office and said, “Hey, I just wanted to say that the margins on your report were simply the best I’ve ever seen! Keep up the great layout work!” You’d start to wonder if your other reports looked like trash, or if there wasn’t anything else good about the report, or if your boss was just a sarcastic jerk.

The praise is important, though. Remember, it’s how we teach other people what we want and expect from them. The key is to treat it in a matter-of-fact way, like you’re noticing something that you expect from them all of the time. For example, if your kids fight a lot, don’t walk into the room when you discover them getting along and act so surprised that you’re going to throw a party. Instead, say something like this: “I’m glad to see you guys getting along.” And then keep walking. Unless you decide you want to reward the behavior to reinforce it …

But that’s another article.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy in Worthington, Ohio. He’s also a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program. To arrange an appointment, call 614-477-5565.)