Children start comparing themselves to others as early as nursery school – can their friends run faster, make more impressive crafts or read better? Do they receive more praise?

The pursuit of recognition sets in at an early age. When it does, parents often wonder about the right way to praise their children, deliver constructive criticism and help little ones deal with defeat.

A lot of it boils down to good communication.

“Self-esteem depends, among other factors, on how we answer the questions ‘what am I good at? what am I not so good at?’ for ourselves,” says researcher Markus Dresel, who works for a German university and specialises in the motivation to learn.

Children rely heavily on feedback about their abilities, even when it’s obvious that something is or isn’t working.

But what constitutes good feedback for a child?

Most importantly, it should focus on the details and not be too general, says Hermann Scheuerer-Englisch, head of the parenting, youth and family counselling service at the Roman Catholic diocese in the German city of Regensburg.

“Parents should say exactly what they like about a picture the child has drawn,” Scheuerer-Englisch says.

As Dresel notes, it’s not easy to evaluate one’s own performance, even for adults.

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“Children often overestimate their abilities,” he says. “However, it’s important that they do so.”

Overestimating their skills prevents children from immediately giving up when they come up against difficulties and enables them to tackle complicated problems.

One ways parents can signal their sincere interest in their child’s abilities is by asking questions: “How did you solve that difficult maths exercise? What did you find hard?”

Such questions also give children the opportunity to say why they are pleased with themselves or not.

However, parents shouldn’t simply brush it aside when their child expresses unhappiness with his or her performance.

Trying to convince a child that the picture he or she drew is indeed beautiful, for example, isn’t helpful, Scheuerer-Englisch notes.

Parents should instead take the little one’s opinion seriously, although they can perhaps add their own point of view later.

For example, a parent might say: “The way you explain it, I understand that you don’t really like the picture. But I think it’s good that you persevered and worked on it for so long.”

In psychology, this is known as process-oriented praise, as opposed to results-oriented praise.

That means that the child’s efforts and their many attempts are praised – not just what they actually accomplish.

Children increasingly face external performance standards early on in their lives, and some may find it hard to overcome those hurdles, or even simply refuse to try. In such cases, tact is particularly in order, Scheuerer-Englisch says.

Parents can counter a stubborn “I can’t do that” by affectionately asking what kind of help the child would need to accomplish the objective.

It’s important to provide just enough help so that the child can take the next step and realise that they can, indeed, do it. – dpa/Daniela Schumacher

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