The Pitfalls of Praise

Contributed by Jody McVittie, MD Executive Director Sound Discipline

How many times have you heard or been told that it is important to praise your children, or to “catch them being good?” This has been touted as the “recipe” for building self-esteem in our children since the 1960’s. Of course most parents want their children to have self-esteem but it isn’t working. It’s time to re-think this idea.

Part of this “advice” makes sense. Children do not thrive surrounded by negativity. But what they need instead is a sense of connection and encouragement. That is different than praise. Imagine for a moment that you are a child living on a diet of words like:

– Good girl (boy)!
– You are the best player on the team!
– Your painting is beautiful!
– I’m so proud of you.
– You did it just like I wanted.
– You know how to please me 100%
– You are so smart!
– I like it!
– You are great!

What happens when your parent stops saying things? Many kids automatically assume that when the praise stops, there must be something wrong.

Now fast forward into adulthood. How would you know if you are doing a good job? (Probably when someone ELSE tells you). This isn’t self-esteem is it?

So if not praise, what kind of diet do we want for our children? I’d propose that we want something that helps them develop their sense of right and wrong from the inside. We’d like them to be able to do the right thing even when no one is looking – for the pure internal satisfaction. Connection and encouragement are powerful tools to support your child in developing self-esteem.

“Wow,” you might be thinking, “stop praising?” An easier way to think of it is to shift from praise to encouragement. You can think of praise like junk food. A diet of junk food isn’t healthy. A little bit won’t hurt. Adding a healthy diet (encouragement and connection) is what makes the big difference. Need help with what encouragement “looks and sounds like?” Check out our blog.

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About SoundDiscipline

Teaching people to do the right thing when no one is looking ... Growing equity and democracy, on family, one student, one classroom at a time.
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4 Responses to The Pitfalls of Praise

  1. Margit Crane says:

    Hi Jody,

    This is the one part of Positive Discipline that I never understand. Maybe you can help?

    I understand that saying things like, “You’re the most beautiful/smartest/nicest child in the world” is ridiculous, and I don’t believe in praising kids mindlessly or in a way that doesn’t make sense, like “Wow, that painting is so great it could hang in a museum.”

    But I do believe in “high-fiving” kids, thanking them for doing things even if they’re supposed to do them (like clearing the table), or saying “You ROCK” or “I’m proud of you!” I just don’t get why that’s a bad thing?

  2. Hi Margit, Celebrating is wonderful (and it is different than praise). One of the ways I distinguish praise from encouragement is to ask, “Would I say this to a friend or neighbor?” I can easily imagine you high-fiving a friend or thanking them for something or saying, “You ROCK” when you are sharing in their joy. I wouldn’t call that praise.
    I do think that, “I’m proud of you” is something that we would use less with a neighbor. Why? Because it presumes a vertical relationship. It also is not nearly as powerful or helpful as some of the other options that help kids sort out who they are and what pride (theirs not ours) feels like. Here are some samples:
    “I think that is something to really feel proud about.” “It took courage to stand up for yourself like that.” “That was a really difficult situation and you handled it with grace.” “Wow! You did it. How does that feel?”
    Sometimes, perhaps even often when parents say, “I’m proud of you,” there is a little piece of them saying, “I’m proud of me for having raised such an awesome wonderful child.” Kids pick up that vibe and it is harder to take in than the specific acknowledgement or encouragement that goes deeper and is more trustworthy.

    And notice that I’m not recommending praise abstinence. It isn’t particularly helpful, but in small doses it isn’t “bad” either. It is when praise is the “main course” that kids lose their internal compass and move toward needing approval instead of finding their internal sense of value.

  3. Pingback: Sharing and “Seeing Big” | Sounddiscipline's Blog

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