Praise: Don’t Lay It On Too Thick

Have you ever had someone describe you as “perfect,” “an angel,” “a genius?” What did you say? Your gut reaction was probably to shout, “No I’m not!” Little Miss Perfect doesn’t live in the real world–and kids know it. They don’t want and don’t need the pressure of living up to unreal expectations. What happens when Michael is not a good boy? Is he still okay? If they try and fail, children may either feel guilt for letting you down, or frustration at not being good enough and blame you.

Many parents and teachers think praise is the key to building self-confidence and security in children. This is a fallacy. In fact, some children will go out of their way to prove you are wrong. I saw this frequently with children in residential care. They didn’t know how to accept praise, because it ran against the grain of what they thought of themselves. So they’d do something wrong to set the story straight. And then what do you find yourself doing?–punishing them. Some children are convinced they’ll never be able to do their praise-worthy behavior again, so they stop trying. You may also meet kids who resent authority figures. Your praise is like sleeping with the enemy, and they’ll go a long ways to avoid it. Other children, especially older ones, see behind your praise, sense you are trying to change them, and resent you for it. When praise is too thick, kids start thinking, “you’re lying–get lost,” “yah right–what do you want from me,” “if this is fantastic, I’d hate to see lousy,” or “I hate this thing–how can you like it?” They deny your praise, think you are a phony, question your judgment, or feel like you don’t understand them.

Too much praise can also make your child praise dependent. You may know people like this: they’re always searching for approval. Their self-esteem is anchored in what everyone else thinks about them. You have to give your children some breathing room. Don’t pounce on them for every inch of accomplishment. Let them tell themselves they’ve created something wonderful. This frees them from the pressures of external evaluative praise, and helps them make up their own minds about how good they are.

A further point to keep in mind about praise is the implicit message you’re giving children–“I am better than you, because I am the one doing the praising.” Would you ever say to your university professor, “You’re a great teacher,” or “You’re class is fantastic”? Not likely. Evaluative comments like these usually make people think you’re buttering them up and leave a bad taste in their mouths. You’re better off expressing feelings like, “I always looked forward to your class,” or “You turned a drab subject into a course I enjoyed taking.”