There are many ways to build positive behavior growth and healthy relationships with our children. One way is through delivering reinforcers, or rewards, for good behavior. Another way is through sweet pet names and praise.
Everyone uses praise and pet names. Pet names are a fun way to bond with those around us, whether it’s our spouse, friends, or children. However, have you stopped to think about whether your kiddo’s pet names might actually be harming their self-image? Or harming the way they interact with the world around them? Unfortunately, just like with reward delivery, pet names and praise are easy to get wrong.
How about we get through the unhealthy types of praise, and then we’ll get to cover the DOs of praise and pet names?
Let’s start with unhealthy forms of praise and pet names, and get the ugly stuff out-of-the-way first…
“Look at you! You’re so beautiful/handsome!”
Now, don’t get me wrong! Everyone likes to hear that they’re beautiful or handsome every once in a while. But we don’t want to deliver praise on something looks because we all know that:
- Our looks can change-sometimes quite drastically. Things like aging, health concerns, puberty, medications, or unfortunate accidents can affect our physical appearance
- Our looks are due to winning a genetic lottery, they aren’t due to anything in our control
Raising a child who’s favorite aspect of themselves is their physical appearance will set them up for potential disaster.
Take me, for example. Growing up I was always on the skinny side, and my friends and family certainly praised me for it. They called me “flaquita” (Spanish for “skinny”) and always complimented me on my figure. The problem is that I didn’t earn my figure. I’ve gone to a gym a handful of times in my life and sure, I enjoy eating vegetables, but I also love my donuts and bacon.
When I moved to California, my chronic migraine condition worsened significantly. In my search for pain management, I took a prescription preventative medication that ended up causing me to gain 20 pounds in the span of 2-3 months! I felt terrible about myself. I was self-conscious about my body and completely miserable when the time came to go shopping for a dress to attend my cousin’s wedding.
Now, my parents had also praised me for my intelligence and creativity so my self-image and identity certainly wasn’t tied to only my looks. But even so, I had a very hard time adjusting to the reality I was facing. I was still “thin” by the standards of many, but my body was not the one I was used to, and that was devastating to me until I was able to switch medications and drop the weight.
So please, praise children on things within their control, not something like their pretty face or their body.
“My goodness, you’re so smart!”
Simply put, calling your kiddo smart can backfire if they start to do poorly in school. If they’ve been called “smart” their entire lives due to getting good grades, they may have internalized “smart” to be a part of who they are. This can become a problem if they take Advanced Placement (AP) classes or join the International Baccalaureate program and start getting lower grades than they are used to. These new lower grades might beg the question, “I used to be so smart, what happened to me?”
They might suddenly find themselves thinking they aren’t smart. This can certainly open a can of worms when it comes to self-image and negative self-talk.
“You’re my perfect little guy!”
Perfect is probably one of the worst offenders that could have made it onto this list! And that is because Perfect is a killer of self-image. Sure, being called perfect feels great in the moment of success. It makes you feel like you’re on top of the world.
But more often than not, your kiddo isn’t being perfect. They’re being human: making mistakes, being wacky, cranky, sleepy or needy. And when your kiddo (or anyone, really) is outside that moment of success, when they’re being real, Perfect looms over their head as an unattainable pedestal. Don’t set them up to a life of aspiring something that nobody can reach.
And the trouble with Perfect is that it can also be detrimental if they do believe it. Have you ever met someone who truly believed they were perfect and thought about how kind they are? Probably not. Raising a child who believes in their own perfection is not only encouraging a delusion, but will also make them people who can’t relate to others in society.
“You’re my precious little prince/princess!”
Basically any pet name that is royalty or a title. Calling your kiddo names like “my little princess” just aren’t reality. And it’s not based on any positive traits or qualities related to your child, it’s just vacuous words. Kind and affectionate words, certainly, but empty ones. Isn’t it better to give them praise and pet names based on their successes and good qualities, rather than empty words?
Now that we got our DON’Ts out of the way, let’s discuss healthy forms of praise and pet names.
“I love how dedicated you are to (fill-in-the-blank).”
Dedicated is good. Dedicated is great, actually! You want to encourage your child to take on projects and roles that become their pet projects. Something they can work hard on and see through to success. Situations like this will help them develop a deeper capacity for delayed gratification, which has been shown to have significant positive effects on their lives.
And another great aspect to this is that dedication applies to so many aspects of life. Your kiddo will grow up valuing their dedication to their:
- pet projects
- health routine
What a healthy life balance to create, don’t you think?
“You are so brave, I’m proud of you.”
Brave is one of my favorites! Life is full of so many different experiences. Some are great, some terrible, and some even scary. But mainly, life is full of change and the uncertainty that comes along with it. Encouraging children to be brave and face their fears will help them face the changes and uncertainty throughout their lives with more grace. Note the difference between calling them brave and calling them fearless. We don’t want to praise fearlessness because it isn’t sustainable through life.
Being brave doesn’t mean you aren’t scared. Being brave means you are scared, really scared, badly scared, and you do the right thing anyway. ― Neil Gaiman, Coraline
“You are my amazing little adventurer!”
Being adventurous is such a great one, isn’t it?! Praising a child for being adventurous will develop outgoing and extroverted little ones, and who could say no to that?
Traveling and seeking out new experiences fosters growth and maturation in so many different ways. Your kiddo can certainly benefit from having their adventurous side praised and rewarded. And who knows, maybe you’ll raise a kiddo that decides to study abroad or backpack across Europe! Imagine how their world view will be changed! They will get to see other cultures and how people live in other parts of the world.
“I love how you make everyone around you so happy, you’re so funny!”
Although some jokes can be hit or miss, I encourage you to nurture your kiddo’s funny side. Encourage their impressions and fake accents. Humor can not only help their own optimistic and happy outlook on life, but will also foster an appreciation and empathy to the happiness of others.
I basically started performing for my mother, going, ‘Love me!’ What drives you to perform is the need for that primal connection. When I was little, my mother was funny with me, and I started to be charming and funny for her… ― Robin Williams
I had a student back in Miami who was always making me laugh during our sessions. R was constantly saying the funniest things and making the wackiest voices and impersonations. And let me tell you something: I remember every tutoring student I’ve ever had. The good ones, the mischievous ones, and even the rude ones! And out of all those years of collected memories, some of my fondest ones are from my lessons with R.
“You are such a hard-working kiddo!”
You can’t go wrong with hard-working, as long as you’re also teaching them to maintain a healthy balance in life. Hard work doesn’t have to relate to school or work necessarily either.
- Your kiddo can work hard at their volunteer position,
- She can get up early for her team practices before school,
- He can spend hours perfecting a painting or making sure he gets the new song he wrote “just right.”
And all of these would be perfect examples of a hardworking child.
“My sweet girl is so creative! I always love watching what you create.”
Creativity pays off so well in life! Whether it’s called “creativity” in the arts or “innovation” in business – the idea is the same. Thinking in the box can certainly lead to a safe and stable life your kiddo would be proud of. However, creativity and innovation will lead to a different type of accomplishment than what can be attained by “keeping it safe”. It will also help in developing perseverance, since there will inevitably be some ideas that don’t pan out.
“I love how sweet and kind you are, honey.”
Do I even need to discuss this one further? It always pays off to be kind to the people in our lives. It may be directed towards a friend, acquaintance, waiter at the restaurant, or a homeless person on the street. Maybe even a stray dog who lost it’s way. I believe that kindness is one of the best qualities a person can have. And so, praising a child’s kindness is one of the best things you can do to help them become a positive impact in their community. To become a ray of hope to those out there who might just need a smile from a stranger passing by.
“This pasta turned out delicious-great job!”
Any time your praise is specific to an instance of good behavior, you’ll reap the biggest benefits of your praise. The specificity of the praise will ensure they know what the desirable behavior was. And as long as the praise is something they find rewarding, they’ll be sure to repeat the behavior to get more praise. After all, don’t most of us like praise every now and then?
Always remember that positive forms of behavior-specific praise can take a larger role in your child’s life and help you improve their behavior in school and at home.
There’s many great and supportive ways to praise your kiddo to help them develop a strong self-image as well as healthy lifelong behavior. Unfortunately, there’s also forms of praise that can damage your child’s image of who they are. Don’t worry if you’ve been using one of these potentially damaging pet names. It’s never too late to switch it up! It might surprise your kiddo at first, but I’m sure they’ll come to enjoy pet names and praise based on their positive traits.
Featured Contributor: Stephanie Ortega
Stephanie is a behavior analyst and tutor with over a decade of experience in helping children. She creates planners and worksheets for the organizer within us all, maintains a blog, and runs two start-ups. She’s also a doodler and puppy and cat mom who enjoys travel and learning new things.
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