The Dangers of Praise – Part 1

As my daughter reminds me, I’ll drop F bombs any day of the week (or time of day for that matter), but the P word? No way. Anything but the P word. It’s not part of my vocabulary. And I really want you to banish it from yours.

I’m talking about PRAISE and all the little praise phrases that so many parents say 20+ times a day: “Good Job!” “Nice work!” “You’re the best!” “You’re so smart.” “I’m proud of you.”

Ooooh, praise. It’s a real bad habit for so many of you, so I’m tasking myself with convincing you WHY your praise habit is digging a slow hole that your kids will have a hard time climbing out of later in life.

Praise – the feel good strategy of choice – NOT good for our kids? How can that be?

I spent years talking with professionals and psychologists, reading about the effects of praise and observing how my own children responded to encouragement instead of praise and was soon convinced that I needed to close the door on praise permanently.

Why we should stop praising our kids

When our kids accomplish something, we tell them how proud we are of them. It’s easy. We feel good, they feel good. I know this makes sense to us. Our kids do great things and we want them to know how we feel, and how happy we are for them. And sometimes we want our neighbors or relatives to know how great our children are (and in turn) how great WE ARE as parents. We’ve raised such marvelous wonders.

But the reasons we boast and praise our children are not nearly as important as the answer to this question:

    What do you say to your child when she misses the mark?
    What do you say when he falls a bit short?
    What do you say when she fails or gets rejected?

Probably something like this: “Oh, that’s ok, honey, you were accepted to the other two colleges.” Or you may say, “Don’t cry, I know you tried.” Or, “I still love you even though you didn’t get invited to that party.”

Children interpret this as an attempt to make them feel better. Sure, you’re sad for them and you do want to support them. But they also interpret this as a lack of pride. Logically, you usually say how proud you are when she gets the goal, therefore, you must be NOT proud – or disappointed – when she misses the goal.

Face it, you’re not going to say, “nice work!” when she misses the goal. It’s a difficult situation to correct once your child is used to you praising her moments of success. Each time you choose “I’m so proud of you” after the win, there’s an elephant in the room whispering, “but what do you feel when she loses?”

As parents, you may think you are helping your child to feel good with the praise, but it has the opposite long-term effect.

Here is an example from my life to illustrate:

My daughter received her acceptance letter from Columbia University in New York. After hours and hours of research to find a program in her field of interest, she applied to graduate school a few months earlier. She was elated and couldn’t wait to share the news with us. My husband and I were on the phone with her when she opened the letter. Zoe and my husband screamed and shouted and hooted and hollered. When everyone settled down, the following conversation ensued:

Zoe: So mom, are you proud of me?

Me: Zoe, I am so happy that you got into the program you wanted and I am impressed with how hard you worked for 4 years to make this dream come true. I am inspired to work hard for my own dreams and I am thrilled that you will be living in New York.

Zoe: Mom, come on, say it – say you are proud of me.

(Her dad jumps in with): I am proud of you Zoe.

Zoe: I know, but I want to hear Mom say it. She never uses the “P” word. She is the only mom I know who is more comfortable dropping the “F” bomb than using the “P” word.

Me: I’m sorry Zoe, but if I tell you I am proud of you now, the next time something like this happens and say you don’t get in, you might think I’m disappointed in you, and that just wouldn’t be true. See, the thing is, if a parent says they are proud, then that leaves room for a parent to be disappointed and I can assure you Zoe, that I am never, ever, disappointed in you. The best I can give you my darling is this – perhaps on my death bed, as I am saying goodbye, I will look at you and say – I am proud to be your mother.

She fell silent. I heard her take a big gulp of air and she closed our conversation.

Zoe: I love you and I am proud of me and I couldn’t have done it without all the faith and support and love that I got from you and pops.

Consider your words carefully and consider the message those words carry with them when delivered on young ears with impressionable minds.

Wondering what the heck to say instead of praise? Here’s Part 2: The Art of Encouragement

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