Giving a child feedback – both criticism and praise - is more than just useful; it’s essential. While it may be hard for kids to get motivated, it’s impossible for them to stay motivated when they aren’t sure if they’re on the right track.  Giving well-crafted, frequent feedback is one of our most important jobs as parents and teachers. 

But as every one of us knows, sometimes the feedback we give doesn’t seem to be all that motivating.  Even with the best intentions, our words of encouragement or disapproval can easily backfire or seem to fall on deaf ears, and many of us have a hard time understanding why. 

Luckily, scientific studies on motivation have shed light on why some types of feedback work and others don’t.  If you’ve gotten it wrong in the past (and who hasn’t?), then you can do a better job of giving feedback from now on by sticking to three simple rules:

  • Rule #1: When things go wrong, keep it real.  It’s not easy to tell a child that they screwed up, and knowing this may cause anxiety, disappointment or embarrassment.  But don’t make the mistake of protecting a child’s feelings at the expense of telling them what they truly need to hear.  Remember that without honest feedback, kids can’t possibly figure out what to do differently next time. 

Also, don’t take away a child’s sense of responsibility for what went wrong (assuming he or she is in fact to blame), just because you don’t want to be “hard” on them.  Letting children off the hook for their own mistakes, telling them that they “tried their best” when it’s clear that they didn’t, may leave kids feeling powerless to improve.

  • Rule #2: When things go wrong, fight self-doubt.  Children need to believe that success is within reach, no matter what mistakes they have made in the past.  To do this,

Be specific.   What needs improvement, and what exactly can be done to improve?
Emphasize actions that they have the power to change. Talk about aspects of performance that are under their control, like the time and effort that were put into a practicing, or the study method which was used.

Avoid praising effort when it didn’t pay off. Many parents try to console their child by saying things like “Well honey, you didn’t do very well, but you worked hard and really tried your best.”  Why does anyonethink that this is comforting?  For the record – it’s not.  (Unless, of course, it was a no-win situation from the start).

Studies show that, after a failure, being complimented for “effort” not only makes kids feel stupid, it also leaves them feeling like they can’t improve.  In these instances, it’s really best to stick to purely informational feedback – if effort isn’t the problem, help them figure out what is.

  • Rule #3: When things go right, avoid praising ability.  I know we all like to hear how smart and talented we are, and so naturally we assume that it’s what kids want to hear too.  Of course they do.  But it’s not what they need to hear to stay motivated.

Studies conducted by Carol Dweck and her colleagues show that when children are praised for having high ability, it leaves them more vulnerable to self-doubt when they are faced with a challenge later.  If being successful means that a child is “smart,” then they’re likely to conclude that they aren’t smart when having a harder time. 

Make sure that you also praise aspects of your child’s performance that were under their control.  Talk about a creative approach, careful planning, persistence and effort, and a positive attitude.  Praise actions, not just abilities. That way, when your child runs into trouble later on, they’ll remember what helped them to succeed in the past and put that knowledge to good use.

About the Author:

Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson is a motivational psychologist, researcher, and mother of two. (She was fortunate to have Carol Dweck as her graduate advisor, mentor, colleague, and second mom.)  She blogs regularly for Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Harvard Business Review, and Fast Company, where she writes about goals, achievement, relationships and finding happiness.  Her new book is titled: Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals (Hudson Street Press).   You can read her blog posts and find out more about the book at

Follow Dr. Halvorson on Twitter at @hghalvorson