Don’t tell your kid he’s smart, or he won’t think he needs to try.
Tell your kid he’s smart so he’ll believe he’s capable.
Don’t praise your kid at all; then he’ll grow up expecting constant affirmation.
Praise your kid for her efforts so she will see the value of hard work.
Don’t praise your kid for her efforts or she will find her value in what she does.
And whatever you do, don’t call her pretty.

Does anyone else sometimes feel overwhelmed by what all the well-meaning experts tell us to do or not do when it comes to raising our children?

When my daughters were infants, I thought it was bad. There were so many different schools of thought on every aspect of baby care. From diapers to bottles to bedtime routines, you can find a book that will promise you The World’s Perfect Baby IF… but of course, the next book du jour will promise you the same thing, but with completely contradictory advice. I eventually learned to close the books, lean into a few “real world” experts around me, and ultimately just figure out my own methods.

But the older my daughters get, the more important these parenting decisions seem to become—or maybe not more important, but at least weightier. The closer they get to leaving our house—and as I see our strongest years of influence quickly coming to a close—the more weight I feel in my words.

I’ve thought a lot about the issue of praise, perhaps because words are important to me both as a writer and as a person (words of affirmation girl here). I’ve felt so much pressure to get this right for my girls: to get the right balance of praising efforts and abilities . . . to make my daughters feel beautiful and confident, but also not find their sense of worth in their appearance. It can feel truly overwhelming at times and make me miss the days of debating homemade versus store-bought baby food (full disclosure: I bought the jarred stuff, and my kids survived).

While I’m still trying to figure all this out for myself and my daughters, I have uncovered a few things the last few years that might help others trying to navigate these complex waters.

There’s no such thing as a perfect balance.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. I’m sure there are occasional days I strike the right chord, but honestly, I think it’s more the sum of the years that matters in the end. If we are intentionally noticing our kids’ efforts, highlighting their areas of natural gifting, and also reminding them they are a beautiful creation, over time, I think it will all even out and help build kids with strong work ethics who have confidence in their God-given abilities and worth

Encourage them when they fail.

Perhaps even more important than praising our kids when they do well or try hard, is encouraging them when they mess up or even fail. There is no greater opportunity to demonstrate that their worth is not wrapped up in their performance or abilities than when both of those are low. Reaching out to your child to remind them of how much you love them no matter what—even if they didn’t succeed—or even if they didn’t try their best!—is something that will give them more security than all the praise you shower them with on a good day.

Relax, and let God fill in the gaps.

None of us is ever going to be a perfect parent, and while it’s great to educate ourselves on parenting techniques and be a student of our children, at the end of the day, we are going to miss things. We’re going to get things wrong. Sometimes grossly so. But thankfully we are not raising these children alone. The same God who created them is growing them up, and He can fill in the places where we over-praise or under-encourage, or fall short in any other area as parents. Ultimately, the best thing we can do to raise kids with healthy self-esteems and strong work ethics is to introduce them to their Maker who loves them even more than we do and who has a great plan for the world that He wants them to be a part of.

And remember, many of us grew up on jarred baby food and white bread, and our parents would have laughed at the idea of studying parenting techniques. “Know better, do better,” sure . . . but also remember the next phase is just around the corner, so don’t miss the one you’re in because you’re trying to get to the next parenting level. Tell your kid he’s awesome, strong and handsome. Don’t be afraid to tell your daughter she’s beautiful, smart and a hard worker. Yes, our words have power. But our God has more.