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Why we need to praise qualities, not outcomes

Why We Need To Praise Qualities, Not Outcomes

Praising children and teenagers is something that we all know is important. However, is there a right or wrong way to do it? Do we need to praise qualities, not outcomes?

We frequently meet young people who place the value of themselves on:

  • Their academic outcomes (homework, coursework)
  • Their test results
  • Their sporting achievements
  • Their grades at the end of the year
  • The university they are accepted into

Whilst academic and sporting prowess are wonderful achievements, is there a point when we are only placing value on achievements that are outside of ourselves?

What is success?

Success means different things to different people. Frequently, we see success being measured on grades, income, material items and achievements. However, we also commonly see stories of those who are ‘successful’ struggling with their mental health and well-being. So, what is success?

For perfectionist or A-type achieving young people, their outcomes can be the only measure that they use of their value. This can become dangerous for self-esteem, self-belief and confidence. When success is only tied to external achievements what is the danger to our mental health?

However, perhaps the struggle is that we need to redefine what success looks like. Instead considering the qualities we define as being successful, and reevaluating what we praise, such as:

  • Kindness
  • Consideration
  • Humility
  • Happiness
  • Peace
  • Positive mental health
  • Perseverance
  • Determination
  • Resilience
  • Curiosity
  • Inquisitiveness
  • Creativity
  • Self-motivation

When we move from ‘success chasing’ to ‘internal respect and value’ our attitudes, abilities and perspective can change dramatically. With the ability to be able to recognise our own strengths of character, we increase our confidence, self-esteem and value.

The perils of external achievements

You may have seen our previous article on internal and external motivation (find it here). If we are placing our praise, and therefore our value and success on external motivators, what happens to our self-esteem:

  • When we fail?
  • If we do not get the highest grades?
  • If something goes wrong?
  • If we do not get into our chosen school/university?
  • If we do not win the race?
  • If we are not the fastest?
  • If we are not top of the class?

If our sense of success and value is only placed on academic, sporting or career outcomes, this can create a disconnect within ourselves if something goes wrong, or the plan is not executed. If we can ‘only’ be happy if we are successful our lives can feel:

  • Unmeaningful
  • Scary
  • Uncertain
  • Unhappy
  • Anxious
  • Stressful

This means, that if we are not able to meet the targets that we have justified as measuring us as ‘successful’ our mental health can decline. It may mean that we we can feel:

  • Worthless
  • A Failure
  • Despair
  • Humiliated
  • Anxiety
  • Demoralised
  • Stress
  • Depression

Therefore, young people can feel that they are not good enough and struggle with a cycle of despair where they need to ‘try harder’ and ‘be more’. The dangers can therefore be quite obvious, our mental health declines and we cannot ‘be happy’ until we are successful. In young people, this can mean that relationships with peer groups suffer, social opportunities are reduced as achievements take the fore, and engagement in the world around us declines.

What can we focus on instead?

So, what can we do instead?

Whilst academia and careers are important, they are not a measure of success. Redefining what success looks like can help us to support young people to develop a more holistic attitude and reduce the pressure that they place on themselves.

What should we do? Instead of getting caught up in praising the grades, test results or exam outcomes. Out focus should be on helping young people develop a sense of identity and self. Helping them to recognise the wonderful qualities that created them, and the aspects of self which make them a good human being. These help us to see what is good about us and who we are outside of those areas. We can consider what we see as being positive human qualities, to help young people see the world in perspective. We could consider:

  • Praise generosity to friends and family
  • Thank them for spending quality time with family, friends or siblings
  • Recognise their acts of kindness and consideration
  • Encourage, and role model, self-care
  • Make time to connect and spend time together
  • Comment on their commitment and dedication (regardless of the outcomes)
  • Support opportunities to engage with peers and develop positive relationships
  • Thank them when they share their fears, worries and vulnerabilities
  • Praise their attitude to adversity
  • Recognise their strengths
  • Encourage problem solving
  • Recognise their creativity, perseverance and determination
  • Notice and comment on the little things that they do that make the day easier (helping a sibling, tidying their room, household chores)
  • Thank them for the things that they did without being asked

Whilst it is natural to praise academic outcomes, when we shift our focus to how we support children to develop a strong sense of identity we develop their resilience much more.

How might you action this today?



Further help 

For more articles about mental health visit – ARTICLES 

To learn more about child and adolescent mental health visit – COURSES 

For resources to support child and adolescent mental health visit –RESOURCES 


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