It’s no secret that kids need encouragement to thrive. But how exactly do you encourage your child authentically? And are the encouraging phrases you’re using for your kids really the best things to say?
It’s different from praise, admiration, or guidance.
It is common to want to give evaluative feedback to kids for their work. We may think that positive things to say to kids include things like, “Good coloring!”. Or an explanation of what we like about their accomplishments (“I like how you set the table.”) is encouraging. Or that what we expect of their behavior. (“You need to try your best at school today.”) will encourage them to do their best.
Though these kinds of responses may seem like encouraging phrases for kids, they actually teach them to rely on our evaluations rather than to learn to form their own judgments about behavior.
How Praise and Encouragement Differ
Alfie Kohn, researcher and author of Punished by Rewards, says that kids can come to depend on praise and external validation instead of finding satisfaction in doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do.
“Rather than bolstering a child’s self-esteem, praise may increase kids’ dependence on us. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval,” says Kohn. He recommends that as a parent, you focus on supporting and encouraging your child’s efforts, rather than on praising the results.
Encouragement is about teaching kids to see the value of their own accomplishments and to be in charge of their own success. It fosters internal strength and motivation by keeping the focus of children’s behavior on themselves instead of anyone else.
As psychologist Rudolf Dreikurs said, “A child needs encouragement like a plant needs water.”
Positive & Encouraging Words for Kids
If you want your child to put less emphasis on the opinions and evaluations of others, try offering positive words that center on them, not you. Here are some encouraging phrases for kids you can use to get put them a little more in control – but also remind them that your love is unconditional.
For tasks that a child has completed, let him know his efforts are appreciated. Tell him, “That helped a lot,” and, “I appreciate the time you spent on this.”
It lets him know that his work is meaningful and he is an important contributor to the family. Saying ‘thank you’ is no less celebratory than saying ‘good job.’ Expressing gratitude for a job well done still communicates excitement and pride. The difference is you don’t need to tell your child that what he did was good; he will inherently feel it.
Claire, a stay-at-home mom of three boys, said that at dinner one night, she thanked her 3-year-old, Tucker, for giving each family member a napkin to use. When Tucker climbed into his chair and replied, “Mama, I like you thanking me. That feels nice,” she was struck by the power of those simple words. Without any praise, Tucker felt significant and appreciated; he felt his “good job,” and he was motivated to do it again.
“You did it!”
Use this kind of encouragement for when a child has achieved a goal or milestone. Cheer for her by focusing on the effort it took to get there, rather than on the outcome. Instead of saying, “I like how you built that Lego tower,” respond with, “Wow you worked hard on that!”, “Look at what you accomplished!”, or, “You must feel proud.”
Responses like these focus the accomplishment on the child’s inner work, rather than on a parent’s external evaluation. It’s much more encouraging to say, “You sure never gave up during your game!” than to say, “You won your game, good job.”
What could be more encouraging than to know someone is receptive to what you have to say? Active listening validates a child’s sense of significance and belonging in the family; they know they’re important and they matter.
Let kids know you’re taking their thoughts seriously by echoing their statements back to them.
There should be some back-and-forth with
- Open-ended questions – “What would you do about that?”
- Empathy – “Wow, you must have felt scared.”
- Reflections – “Oh, you decided to take a break so you could calm down.”
Good listening sounds more like a conversation than a one-sided monologue. And when a child is heard, they feel seen and known.
“It’s okay to cry.”
It’s important for kids to know that their feelings are always OK. Learning how to manage these feelings takes support, acceptance, and lots of practice. Encourage your child by communicating that it’s not wrong to experience unpleasant feelings like sadness, anger, or fear.
Instead of saying, “You’re OK. Don’t be upset,” let your child know, “You have the right to feel angry. I understand; I would feel mad, too.” Or, “I can see you feel very sad right now, and that’s OK.” Validating your child’s feelings leads to their own acceptance of them, and the realization that they are capable of handling them.
“I trust you.”
Instead of providing the answers and directing kids toward what to do, encourage your child to make decisions and solve problems by letting them know you trust their ability to decide for themselves. Say things like, “I know you can figure this out,” “I have faith in you to find a solution,” “I know you’ll make an appropriate decision,” or “You lead the way on this.”
Entrusting kids to make their own decisions is very empowering for young children! It shifts the dynamic from a parent’s control over a child to one of shared control. It encourages kids to think through problems and come up with their own solutions.
Remember that by opting for encouragement over praise, you’re not ignoring your child’s accomplishments or successes. Encouragement is simply about keeping your response focused on their efforts and feelings as opposed to only the outcomes. Encouraging words not only reassure kids during times of success (“Wow, that took a lot of concentration!”), but also in times of disappointment (“I have faith in you to fix this mistake.”).
Tailor These Phrases to Meet Your Family’s Vibe
Find the way to say these encouraging phrases for kids in a way that fits the relationship you have with your child. Make sure you feel authentic in the way you say them.
Instead of looking to a parent for affirmation, kids are able to decide how they feel about themselves. Their failures and successes – as they should be – are about them, not anyone else.
This article was originally published in February 2014 and updated in November 2022.