Can you give too much praise?
Developing healthy self-esteem was one of my primary parenting goals. Yet, there is a fine line between a confident person and an egotistical person. Where is it? How do you create a confident, secure child without crossing the border into arrogance?
Not getting enough praise is damaging but giving too much general, insincere praise is also ineffective. Kids are smart enough to recognize when praise is insincere and it can backfire. If you rave to your child about what a fantastic athlete they are and they are very aware that they are, in fact, a mediocre athlete, your words are translated as meaningless and not to be trusted. After a while, constant words of unspecified, general praise fall on deaf ears and lose their power. Constant praise creates an attention junkie, a bottomless pit of need that can never be filled. Yet, too little praise creates a hunger for acceptance, kids need to hear positive affirmations!
What is a parent to do? A balance is essential but difficult to achieve. Although I’m no expert, I set out to employ some techniques aimed to raise my daughters to be strong, self-confident women.
Of course, I thought my children were exceptional and I gave them positive feedback, but I attempted to give praise that was specific to actions, character and efforts. I tried to reinforce positive actions that they could control, not superficial qualities such as appearance. Rather than saying “you’re so smart”, I would say “you studied very hard for that test. I’m so proud of you. Do you feel proud of yourself for all your hard work?” That gave the sense of power to them, creating an intrinsic locus of control. It allowed them to hear my praise but more importantly, to reflect back to their own thoughts and give themselves positive feedback.
Although it’s wonderful to have parents and teachers praise the child, I think it’s even more important to teach the child to give themselves feedback and self approval. As adults we receive less and less positive feedback from others so teaching our children to feel worthy independent of external approval is a lifelong gift.
Recent research has shown that it’s more effective to focus your words of praise on the effort rather than the outcome. For instance, if a child has worked hard to learn to ride a bike, you might tell them how much you admired their persistence and determination. Or if they studied all week to pass the Friday spelling test, praise them for their study habits. For some kids, a C will be a success whereas other kids can expend no effort and sail through with an A. Not every child is going to be a star athlete or the Valedictorian but every child can develop positive traits such as determination, perseverance, motivation and a good work ethic.
Perhaps because I am too dependent on other people for validation, I wanted to spare my daughters the same fate. It’s human nature to crave outside approval but it’s healthier if we can reach the level of enjoying praise from others without being too dependent upon it. If you think about social media, it really is about saying, “Look at me, I’m special, please ‘like’ me!”
It’s natural to want to be recognized, to be seen as something special and desirable. Raising children to be confident people without being narcissistic is a challenge. Wouldn’t it be great if we could free our children from needing constant external affirmation and assist them in developing a healthy self-esteem?