To Praise or Not to Praise

Gabe texted me the other day to tell me he had received 20/20 on his “math journal”. I praised him for this accomplishment as I know he had put a lot of effort into it and worked hard on it. He really had done a great job and I think well deserved of some praise. He had met – and actually exceeded his teacher’s expectations, and probably met and exceeded his own.

Sam, came home with his first project to do. He is only in grade 1, and he had to build a timeline of his life. He had started working on it and brought it over to our place to finish. Rob and I looked at it. He had obviously spent a little bit of time on it, and the concept was good. He recognized what he had to do, and had started to do some of it, but the work was inconsistent, and clearly “rushed”. Yes, the idea is to have the child complete the work, but is anything that he does “great work” just because if it is not it will hurt his self esteem? Is this not the opportunity too help him learn to set some “standards” for himself and the work he does?

A few weeks ago Zach wrote a “good copy” of an assignment for school. I looked it over and then said, “Good start. Now you can go do the good copy”. He was shocked . This WAS the good copy. He had used a piece of paper that had a rip, had inconsistent and messy handwriting, and no attention to detail (capitals and punctuation). He was not pleased that I made him redo it, but the final product was much more in line with a real “good effort”. Should I have just said nothing and said “Great job, honey”? Did I scar him by suggesting he needed to make the “good copy”?

These little incidents, and the thousands that have come before, made me think a lot about expectations and praise. Should I be praising my kids for clearing their plates? Putting their clothes in the laundry hamper? Putting their videos games away? Brushing their teeth? Getting their homework done on time?

These seem like everyday expectations to me. Just part of life, of being a family and living together. While these things are appreciated (and appreciation is always appreciated), should they be “praised”? Maybe at the beginning when they were learning a new skill, but after that? Everyday standards.

Should I be supporting and praising half hearted efforts to get work done as quick as possible to go out and play, cheering when my son runs the wrong way in a game and scores in their own team’s net (ok – I admit – when they are small – it is so darn cute!), congratulating him/her on not failing a math test? All in the name of stroking their ego and justifying it because “I want to build his/her self esteem and that is how it is done”. Never mind “no criticism please”, do we have to do the opposite and praise any tiny thing our child now does?

In some respects we have been trained so much as parents to worry about future psychological implications that we forget about the moment we are in. By doing so, our children lose sight of the issues at hand and are distracted by the praise. A good example is the kid who, while not paying attention and half heartedly engaged in playing goalie, in a soccer game, stares at the sky as the team shoots one right in the net! What do we (sometimes)say: “Tommy what happened? Looks like you were asleep!” but then this is quickly countered by another parent, usually the Mom (sorry Mama Bear) saying, “Good try sweetie, it was a really tough shot.” (And yes, I am guilty of this very act).

This is the balancing act or the scales of modern parent justice. If you say something “critical” surely it needs to be countered by some kind of praise however unrealistic or misplaced. The result, the kid absorbs the counter compliment and uses it as justification for not paying attention. You then see this kid going on an on afterward about how it was a tough shot and that no one could have saved it! Hmmm, what disservice did I just give my child?

So, I struggle greatly with praise: When do you give it? When is it too much? Am I giving enough? Am I giving the right kind? Am I too hard on my kids? Am I not hard enough? Can I or should I ever be “critical” (however “constructive” it can be)?

As much as I am concerned with my child’s self esteem – does constant praising for everything really build self esteem?

A person with true self esteem has a realistic view of him/herself yet likes and accepts him/herself anyway. Self esteem is not only based on real accomplishments, but on the emotional relationships that are successfully built with family and those around.

Of course we should praise children when they work hard, face a challenge, and accomplish something after much effort. This of course contributes to their self esteem, self confidence and self image. But does praise for doing the expected and ordinary, or even doing a mediocre, half hearted job, not just build a heightened sense of entitlement, and not prepare kids for the real world?

Does “unwarranted” or excessive praise just build dependency on external rewards and constant approval from parents? Who is the praise for? The parent or the child? Does praising make parents feel like they are doing a good job parenting?

Does constant praise make kids question the sincerity, genuineness of the praise? Perhaps it is a poor substitute for putting the real work into building a relationship based on quality and quantity of time? Is praise merely a substitute for teaching what really needs to be taught? Can being praised for half hearted or incomplete work makes children cynical of real praise as most know the difference and know when praise is deserved anyways?

Does praise for the mediocre downplay actual success and accomplishment and thus lower the expectations a child has for him/herself? Would it not lead children to think that they have a lower potential than they actually do?Can it not make children feel that no one expected anything more impressive out of them – that they are pegged as a low achiever and were just being praised to make them feel better about it?

The reality is, praise is not always called for, nor is it always helpful.

We all need to learn from our mistakes, learn how to fail with grace, learn how to put real effort in. We all need to learn how to “roll up our sleeves and do some dirty work”. We can’t keep telling our kids that things are “ok” or “good” or “great” – when they really are not – and then send them out to the world as adults where we know that they will either be ripped apart by the truth that they are not “superstars” or amazing at everything, or they walk around with an inflated sense of entitlement that they are “owed” everything because of “who they are”. It sets kids up with false expecatations, which can lead to major disappointment.

But not praising does not mean shaming either. Self esteem does not have to be ripped apart because not everything is praised. We don’t have to attack character or intrinsic characteristics, but can we not help set some standards and expectations from which they can work from and strive for? We should not constantly have to tiptoe around something that needs fixing, or sprucing up, or tidied – or maybe is just plain incorrect! We can help them learn what they can improve on, and maybe next time, they will be able to achieve the higher standard they set for themselves, because they have learned how to do that.

We need to teach about self reflection: is that your best effort? What did you do well? How can you do better? We need to help them set expectations and goals for themselves, develop a good work ethic, and feel the intrinsic reward of accomplishing something that they have worked hard at! Striving for the best is something that should not be foreign words to our children.

Perhaps we need to focus on finding a balance between unconditional love and conditional praise. Praise is not the only way to show our love. It is an easy way to show our love, and very much needed when there is something to praise. We certainly can pile on the praise on kids for real accomplishments, but we need to try hard to avoid false praise that creates unrealistic expectations, and try hard to avoid empty praise that communicates we are providing our kids with lipservice.

Yes, I do believe that each and every child is unique and special. I believe that every child is a gift to the world and has gifts, attributes and talents. They are all beautiful, smart, creative, with endless potential. And they need to be told these things!

But, they are also human, with flaws, weaknesses, and tough obstacles to overcome. They need to know that life can be tough, but they have the tools to handle things. They need to be prepared – by us, their parents. They need to know that hard work is required in all things. That mediocre effort results in mediocre outcomes and that sometimes, despite their best effort they will fail or achieve mediocre results anyways. However, there is much joy found in working hard honestly, and striving to do your best to aim to achieve one’s potential. We don’t want to rob our kids from that joy. That is the internal motivation they need throughout their life!

So while I love my kids, and think they are the best… I also love them enough to push them to try hard, or try harder; to encourage them to have pride in their work – whether it be the little things or the big things – and always do their best; to help them aim for the stars and set some big goals; and to let them know that when they fail, which they will many times, they can be proud of the sincere and honest effort they know they gave.

That’s the praise I want to strive to give. That’s how I want to try to help build their self esteem and help them become productive, happy and confident individuals.

Of course, I will make mistakes, and will sometimes not give the right praise, or give too much, or too little. But hopefully they will learn a little bit about humility and forgiveness too along the way having me as their Mom/Smom!


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