I was on my run the other day and stopped at the park to get some water. While there I sat on a bench and drank my water; I closed my eyes and listened. The happiest sounds in the world are listening to kids as they play: their little voices, screams, imagination, and bargaining with their parents for more time to play. Also, what I heard were a lot of "Mommy, was that good?" or "Daddy, see me?" "Did you see that throw?" Mommy and Daddy both responded, affirming the good job or the throw their child had naturally thrown.
You don't have to go to the park to hear all of this praise and affirmation that is exchanged between parents and their children. Sometimes, you have to question if it has gone overboard? Are we raising a generation of kids who expect praise for doing nothing?
The overabundance of praise is cultural and society influenced. It wasn't done as much when I was a kid, or if it was, I don't remember it happening in my family. Eastern cultures believe too much praise causes kids to grow up to be self-serving lazy adults with big egos. They may have something there. More and more young people don't seem to have as strong a work ethic as their parents and grandparents had. They also seem incensed when their boss tells them they have to work for their pay. These are the same kids who grew up getting an allowance just for their existence. The whole idea behind an allowance is to teach children to manage their money and to instill the concept of working (doing their chores and being supervised by parents) to earn spending money.
Like praise, parents are giving it away for free.
Is Praise Bad for Kids?
Not really—if it's done appropriately. For example, research has shown that praising a small toddler for having good manners actually does produce more polite teens. More inappropriate praise is when you praise your child, the little league pitcher, for throwing a good pitch. It's a natural gift for them, and you shouldn't praise gifts or natural talents. Praising your superstar little leaguer for being compassionate to another player for a job not well done will be wiser for that child's future development of having good sportsmanship.
It's all so confusing for parents. One doctor tells you to praise your kids; your parents may tell you not to. You may have grown up with parents who never praised, so you are determined that your children will be praised. The problem is over praise from your kids' point of view can make them feel one of two things: (A) that you feel sorry for them and think they need praise because they are a loser, or (B) that you aren't really engaged with them because you are praising them for something they already know and they are tuning you out.
Here are a few suggestions or guidelines that will help you reconsider before you praise.
1. Be careful praising them for what comes naturally.
If you praise your kids for an A in math that comes naturally, your child may end up taking fewer risks and be less willing to try a new challenge. He will worry you won't praise him for his effort. This can cause anxious, hesitant kids.
2. Be careful praising the kid for what they love to do.
This leads to a kid who thinks she must love what she does in order to do it. These kids may grow up thinking life shouldn't be this hard and are easily defeated when challenged.
3. Using comparisons with other children is going to backfire in your praise.
Telling your child that they are better, stronger, or more attractive than someone else makes a child grow up to think in a win/lose mindset and he becomes very competitive. These children may not seek to understand others; they will seek to win an argument, win a position, or win a relationship. Don't forget, no matter who you know or how high you go, getting along with others can make or break you. Teaching your children to be compassionate and polite is more important and more highly correlated to their future happiness and success than promoting comparisons and competitiveness.
4. Praising your child for their attractiveness should be used with caution.
As a parent, it is easy to get caught in the trap of telling your children how beautiful or handsome they are. When children are praised for looks they know one thing—that the person who praised them values looks. Media's focus on beauty, along with societal norms of impressing sexuality onto children puts additional pressure on them to "look pretty." Your daughter may begin to think at a very young age that she cannot leave the house without her hair and clothes just perfect.
Encouragement and modest praise when your child is discouraged with her tedious practice schedule to learn a skill or overcome a challenge will help build your child's self-esteem more than telling her how pretty she is.
When praising, keep in mind the child's age and developmental level. If you praise a teen insincerely, he may think you are trying to manipulate him, whereas a toddler may need to hear frequently he did good work, or you liked the colors he chose. Kids naturally will begin building their own internal confidence if they face a challenge and work well with it. Constantly telling them how great they are makes them take less risks and less likely to try the very challenges that will help build their self-esteem.
Praise is powerful—use it wisely.
Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC, is a licensed psychotherapist and co-author with Janine J. Sherman, of Start Talking: A Girl's Guide for You and Your Mom About Health, Sex or Whatever.