The first time I came across this idea, I bristled. What??? Parents should praise their children? I mean, I know I grew up in the era of self-esteem, but what the heck is the matter with praise? I want my children to be happy, secure, and proud of who they are. I want them to be absolutely certain I believe in them. Praise seems like a necessary tool in the arsenal.
So why might praise be a problem? These are the four major reasons that give me pause…
Praise passes judgment. When we say, “Cool drawing!” it means there are uncool drawings, too. This, of course, is true, and I’m not suggesting children should be made to feel as though everything they do is gold. But praise and love are closely intertwined, especially in the simplistic minds of a child. While you know your love for your child doesn’t change when he colors all over the page and outside the lines, this isn’t necessarily apparent to children, especially younger ones.
Praise is conditional. Praise acts as a behavioral verbal reward, just like stickers for potty-training or candy for a good report card. Rewards can have their place, especially when establishing new habits or breaking old patterns, but by definition, rewards are conditional on behavior. Praise can inadvertently say, “If you make me feel proud/happy/loved/relieved, I’ll do something nice for you. But if you don’t make me feel those ways, I won’t do nice things for you (or, worse, I might retaliate).”
Praise can be insincere. When you say that drawing is the best drawing you’ve ever seen or your child is the smartest? They know it’s not true. They know there are better drawings and smarter people and faster runners and lovelier singers. Which means one of two things for your child–either you have terrible judgment or you’re lying, neither of which makes you particularly trustworthy in their eyes.
Praise is a cheap substitute for seeing. A more foundational need for our children is to be seen, to be acknowledged for who they really are. When we praise, praise, praise, the takeaway message starts to sound more like, “When you perform the way I want you to, I will approve of you and accept you,” and this isn’t the foundational message I want my children to take away from my parenting. I want them to know that I see all parts of them and I’m a safe place for them to be themselves. I want them to know they can come to me with their problems and weaknesses. I want them to hear, “I see you just as you are and love you,” rather than the similar but profoundly different, “I see you doing what I like and love you for it.”
That said, I’m not sure I’m ready to embrace entirely praise-free parenting. Tomorrow we’ll talk about ways to foster positive interactions without going heavy on the praise. Until then, what do you think about praise? Is it a positive force in parenting or does it do more harm than good.