Susan C. Stone's Practical Parenting Blog dotcom

The Problem with Praise

Posted on: April 7, 2014


How could there be a problem with praise? We all seek it, love it, even crave it! In fact, we value it so highly that we give it to our children in copious quantities, both to inspire cooperation and to build their self esteem. The current parenting wisdom is that praise cannot be overdone.  So, there is hardly a move our children can make without a parent exclaiming “GOOD JOB!!!”. “Good job getting up this morning!”, “Good job putting on your clothes!”, “Good job brushing your teeth!”, “Good job breathing!”.

Another trend in praising children is to attempt to boost self confidence by giving them superlative praise. How could you possibly demean  your child by saying something as lukewarm as “I really like your picture!” or “You really tried your best at soccer today!”? No, parents believe that their children are and deserve THE BEST! “You are the BEST artist in the world!” You are the MOST TERRIFIC athlete I’ve ever seen!”.

But are we really accomplishing our goals with this constant and overblown praise? And, more significantly, are we doing harm? The answers are NO and YES.

In the case of constant praise, the result is that we take away its specialness. Children don’t develop the ability to distinguish between commonplace expectations and exceptional efforts. They can come to believe that simple cooperation is optional. They then take this belief out into the real world and feel that their teachers, peers, and coaches should appreciate them simply going along with the program. Teaching them to expect positive feedback for behaving like a cooperative member of the community will both confuse and disappoint them. Those other people, who also have an impact on their self esteem,  won’t react so enthusiastically leading your child to believe they have fallen short. For parents, a more appropriate way of reinforcing cooperation is to say “I appreciate your getting ready without reminders this morning. It really helps me out.” or “I see that you are being really responsible about your homework”. Save praise for truly laudable behavior – “Wow! You got them all correct on your spelling test this week!” or “The way you organized your room is terrific!”. Be careful, as well, to praise progress rather than perfection. Setting a standard of perfect outcomes is not what you should be striving for. Instead, use and teach your children to use the standard of personal bests and best efforts.

Some parents also believe that praising their children’s accomplishments to the high heavens is a great way to build self esteem. They tell them they are THE BEST, THE MOST, THE GREATEST!!! Because children are literal and give great importance to your evaluations of them, you will end up creating an identity that won’t stand up outside the family. There is always someone who is better than we are. When your child realizes that, they will either knock themselves out trying to surpass others or will find out that you deceived them in your evaluation.

The bottom line is to keep praise proportionate, authentic and reserved for that which is not just expected. Additionally, make sure that praise isn’t given just for performances – whether this be remembering their backpack, doing their homework or helping out at home. Performance praise sets children up to think that only concrete acts are considered worthy of notice. Instead, be sure to praise children for positive intrinsic qualities they display. Comment on their displays of kindness, their sense of humor, their empathy, sense of fairness, loyalty, honesty and other characteristics you admire in them.

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