OK, I know. Telling your kids their artwork stinks sounds horrible. I wouldn't quite say it like that, and I would keep in mind how young the kids are. But if you "ooh" and "aah" at every scribble, pencil mark or blobbed together Play-Doh sculpture, this is for you.
If you find yourself telling your child that every piece of artwork is wonderful, ask yourself if you may be saying, "That is so pretty," without really thinking or paying attention. Sometimes we say something just to acknowledge a child who's madly chanting, "Look, Mommy, look! LOOK!" Yes, it is easy to just stop the crazy with a quick compliment, but piling on hollow words is exactly that: hollow. Instead, I believe in being truthful with our children.
I find that when complimenting a child, it's important to be specific and comment on things they have the control to improve. The details in praise let kids know we're really paying attention. It gives them a glimpse of themselves from a parent's point of view. In my work with new parents, I've experienced that throwing around the "good jobs" doesn't work to improve kids' self-esteem in the way so many parents imagine that it would. Sure, it's important to notice the good things our kids do, and telling them does build their confidence, but how we do it matters. Broad brush strokes of "that's wonderful" don't do the trick.
Instead of unconsciously throwing out the "it's beautiful", I've learned it's definitely more effective to point out how well a child concentrated on a project, or how she kept working at something without giving up, even when she was frustrated. I love to tell my kids I'm proud of how they tried something new, even though they were nervous, or how they used eye contact and thanked the coach after practice. It's being more mindful and productive in praising them.
Being honest in our praise doesn't mean being hurtful or critical. It means not boosting them up without merit. Praise should be earned, and kids know that. Broad and general kudos don't feel sincere the way detailed, honest, and earned praise does.
Sincere assessments of kids' actions and achievements will go further than shallow fluff any day. It allows them to see themselves in a positive light and to build upon that. When kids feel good about a skill or talent, or a job well done, they will seek out opportunities to do more of that. The good will grow. If they are continually heaped and doused with generic, non-distinct praise, that serves as a demotivator. Kids won't work as hard. They won't feel positive about themselves and won't push themselves no matter how much, or how little, effort they've exerted.
Children feel undeserving when they know praise is unearned. The flip side of not offering empty compliments is that kids really feel proud when they get deserved applause from their parents or other adults in their lives. Our kids know we appreciate it when they create something original that shows their efforts.
So give your kids specific, earned praise. They'll appreciate it and know that you're honest with them and that you mean what you say.
Leah DeCesare, author of "Naked Parenting: 7 Keys to Raising Kids with Confidence," is a mother of three and married 20 years. She writes between car pools and laundry. For the past 13 years, her career has focused on birth, babies and early parenting.