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Praising Children Can Backfire! Do this instead.

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As parents, we naturally enjoy praising our children for good behavior, academic achievement, and other desirable traits. For example, have you ever said any of these things to your child?

  • You are a genius!
  • What a great job!
  • Wow! You are such a wonderful xxxxx!
  • You’re so smart, I bet you’re gonna be a doctor!
  • Wow, you’re the next Rembrandt (or put another famous person’s name in)
  • You’re the best xxxxxxx I’ve ever seen!

An Impossible Standard

Of course, we want to encourage our children. But, sometimes children develop performance anxiety because of the words we choose when we praise them. I know it happened to me. During my school years, everyone from my parents to my teachers to my neighbors made the above types of sweeping statements about me. And, while I enjoyed being thought of as smart and talented, I was terrified that someone would discover that I was not nearly as wonderful as they all thought I was. How can a kid live up to the expectation of being a genius?

Such an impossible standard may tempt a young child to lie and cheat in order to protect her status. Many will avoid trying new pursuits that carry of risk of failure. After all, if she is so smart, if she is the best, she can’t fail, right? She must be good at everything, right? They may even think they need to be perfect. That’s when praising children with generic, sweeping statements actually hurts, not helps, them.

Praising children can backfire

When praising our children, we mean well. We do it because we want spur them on. But, in a child’s literal, highly sensory mind, the praise can become pronouncements. These pronouncements twist themselves into goals and expectations that they can’t possibly live up to. Instead of being encouraging, those words become a prison.

And, they also end up limiting our children’s potential. Many times, our children only do what is necessary to earn approval and praise. I talk more about this in my book, God Schooling: How God Intended Children to Learn.  Because of this, they never push themselves, they don’t try new things, and they begin to feel entitled to praise even when they don’t deserve it. They expect people to say great things about them. And, when they don’t get the praise they think they deserve, they may even stop doing the very thing that we praised in the first place. Alfie Kohn talks a lot about this in his book, Punished by Rewards. This is especially dangerous when it comes to faith. Read this post to learn more about that.

In addition, they resent it when other children earn awards and they don’t, even though the other child deserved it and they didn’t. I see this among siblings. “You didn’t tell me my paper was good!” “You didn’t say that I did a good job.” Sometimes, this attitude creates resentment between siblings.

So, sometimes praising children can encourage them to expect rewards for doing nothing instead of encouraging them to do their best. That’s not what we want! What can we do instead?

a silver award medal as a way of praising children that can backfire

Praising children another way

Of course, want to encourage our kids and acknowledge a job well done. But, how can we do this and avoid the pitfalls discussed above? Making sweeping statements like, “You’re the best artist I’ve ever met!” is neither helpful nor honest. He, in fact, is probably not the best artist you’ve ever met and, you haven’t told him what it is that makes you like his art. Actually, very often, we are guilty of not truly examining our children’s work. To be honest, how often do we glance at it, smile, and say, “That’s beautiful, honey! Great job!” and then go back to what we were doing?

Stop and truly examine.

The first step to giving praise that truly encourages is this: Stop and really look at the child’s work. Try to find something that you actually like, even if it looks like a bunch of scribbles on paper. Be specific.  Here are some examples:

  • I like how you used lots of colors in your painting.
  • Your printing is very neat and I like how you wrote on the lines.
  • You followed the instructions well.
  • You included a lot of detail and it looks very lifelike.

Encourage effort.

The next thing to remember when praising children is to praise effort, not the child. The child is not a genius. But, she succeeds because of her diligent studying and attention. We want kids to keep trying, to take some risks, to push harder. Always think about how you can encourage her efforts. Help your child by saying things like:

  • You worked hard on your model. It looks just like the picture.
  • You didn’t give up and you solved the problem!
  • You used a lot of adjectives in your story and it helped me feel like I was really there.
  • I learned some new facts from your history project. You included little known details that show how passionate you are about it.

Through thoughtful consideration of specific ways to encourage effort, our words of praising children will bring about the results we desire. We will avoid the negative pitfalls of entitlement, laziness, and resentment that come from sweeping statements of praise. And, our children will know exactly what it takes to succeed in life. Not only that, but they will know that we truly see them, that we truly appreciate them, and that each one of them are equally worthy to be praised. Not just the “smart one” or the “athletic one” or the “musical one.” All of them.

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