“I Can’t Stop Praising My Kid!”: An Unfortunate Update

Welcome to the latest installment of our Parenting Blog Carnival:  Around the World in Six Weeks!   BlogCarnivalParenting2

This week’s topic:  self-esteem.  Can kids have too much self-esteem?  Read the rest of the posts for this week’s topic below….

Until I had my son, I would have been proud to describe myself using a few titles:  a scholar of resilience, an advocate for adversity, an educator who cultivates self-efficacy rather than self-esteem.

For more than a decade and a half, since my first years of teaching, I’ve been a proponent of stopping the insanity in our culture of overpraising children.  Halt the madness, I would tell anyone who would listen:  Let’s view failure and adversity as opportunities for growth and learning and let’s stop telling kids that everything they do is wonderful, special, and proof of their innate goodness and intelligence.  It’s even the main theme of my dissertation about the experiences of urban kids who go on to excel at elite New England boarding schools.

Then I became a parent.  And I don’t feel like I deserve those titles anymore.

I’ve written about how — despite my training as a teacher, despite my academic research interests in resilience and effort, despite my obsession in the media about this subject — I became a “praise junkie” with my toddler.  I became that mom on the playground whose son looked up expectantly, waiting for her claps and cheers when he went down the slide (for the 300th time).  That mom who said, “Good job!” and gave hugs and kisses for everything that her son did.  And I couldn’t stop myself.  I really couldn’t.  After writing that post about praise, I tried, really hard.

What happened to me, that teacher who became increasingly stingy with praise as her years of teaching experience mounted?  I was a warm, calm teacher, but I rarely praised my students. In fact, over the years, I noticed that my students worked harder, had a stronger connection with me, respected me more, and respected each other when I modeled the fact that effort, perseverance  and the ability to learn from mistakes are the most important qualities in a student.  Because I wasn’t constantly telling them that they were smart, wonderful, and good, they knew that what I said mattered, that I really and truly meant it when I told them that I was proud of them when they did something.

So I was thrilled when I saw that there was a chapter on self-esteem and praise in Christine Gross-Loh’s book Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us.

I was hoping that a cross-cultural perspective would inspire me reclaim my teacher instincts, as a parent.  Even though I’ve read a lot of the research literature in this area, I was confused about how to apply it to my own experience as the parent of a very young child.

It made sense to me that other cultures do not put as much emphasis on the idea of “self-esteem.”  They value humility and the obligation of parents to provide accurate (often critical) feedback as a tool for children to judge their own actions and performance.  But, again, as with the cross-cultural perspectives on sleep and eating, I wasn’t sure how much this knowledge about other parents around the world would help me, a purely American parent with purely American values living in an American community.

But I actually think that I learned a few things that are not difficult for an American parent to put into practice that might help me get rid of my overpraising habit, or at least mitigate its effects.

1.  Put your kids to work even if they’re really little.  Gross-Loh points to a Japanese saying, “Heavy work in youth makes for a quiet age.”  Basically, kids who have to work hard and face challenges through their own experiences very early in life are better off.  While American parents typically show love by doing things for their kids, Gross-Loh describes how parents in other cultures show their love by having their children do things by and for themselves.  They are responsible for their own possessions, have to get from destination to destination on their own, and find out things by themselves.

2.  Teach your kids the habit of self-reflection and of attentiveness about how any person can always improve.  Other cultures put more of a value on self-improvement, rather than only achievement, and they are better at accepting and talking about both success and failure.  Model for your kids how you talk about your own failures and what you learn from them.  And don’t be afraid to talk openly with your kids about what they’re not doing well, as well as what they do well.

3. Teach your kid about the the idea of “grit” at any early age.  I’ve written about “grit” before, and I think it’s such a useful concept for parents and educators.  Use that word as the ultimate compliment — being “gritty” — in your household.  Americans seem to have this idea that everyone is born with unique talents and gifts that must be celebrated.  Other cultures aren’t so fascinated by prodigies or individual, innate talent; they believe that traits are cultivated through hard work.  “Grit” is the ability to persist at a goal and be passionate about it, despite boredom or setbacks.  From my observations, this is what American kids often lack: the belief that mastery comes through perserverance, not raw ability.  I’ve seen as a teacher how convincing a kid that success comes through hard work, not intelligence or talent that you’re born with, can be entirely transformative to their academic lives.

Most of all, the part from from Gross-Loh’s chapter on self-esteem that I will most remember is the experience of a teacher in a Boston suburb.  She — like I did as a teacher — had grown tired of all the overpraising of kids in the name of self-esteem.  As a teacher, she knows that self-esteem isn’t grown from parents constantly telling you that you’re wonderful but is instead developed through working and persisting through challenges.

And what haunts me is her quote about the message that we parents might be giving to our children along with our praise and overconcern about self-esteem.  I wonder, Is this what my son will believe?

“[The] constant stream of praise has had the paradoxical effect of convincing a child, ‘I must be pretty weak and useless; otherwise, why does my parent spend so much energy trying to convince me of the opposite?”

This is the latest post in our Around the World in Six Weeks: A Parenting Blog Carnival.  Have you read our posts on American parenting and co-sleeping, consumerism, and food?  Join us in two weeks for our next topic from Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us!


And check out the posts from the other fantastic bloggers joining me in this Carnival:

Is Your Child in the Gifted Program?” by Stephanie (Mommy, For Real)

Self-Esteem Isn’t Selfish” by Sarah (Left Brain Buddha)

I’d Say He’s Average” by Lauren (Omnimom)

Which Is More Important: Intelligence or Resilience?” by Deb (Urban Moo Cow)

And welcome to our second Stephanie from When Crazy Meets Exhaustion.  Check out her post, “Don’t Let Your Kid Become An Arrogant A-hole



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23 thoughts on ““I Can’t Stop Praising My Kid!”: An Unfortunate Update”

  1. Pingback: Don’t Let Your Kid Become An Arrogant A-hole

  2. Pingback: Self-Esteem isn't Selfish - Left Brain Buddha

  3. It is so funny isn’t it, how the research gets tossed out the window when you have a child? The more I think about this, I’m realizing there is a difference in using the words “smart, good, and wonderful” in praise. Maybe we don’t want to say “smart” because of all that connotes in terms of expectations about grades and performance, but I think telling our kids that they are good and wonderful is totally okay, and something we should do.

    I also think, as a teacher, about the kids whose parents aren’t reading parenting books and blogs, who are getting negative messages at home instead of support… And I think, maybe their teachers are the only people who praise them? I don’t need to be disingenuous with my praise, for my sophomores will see through that, but reading this chapter and reflecting on it has made me think more about how I see my students and how I will make sure to tell them the Sparks that I see in them.

    Just this spring, a parent of a graduating student broke down in tears at conferences, telling me how, when her daughter had been in my class over 2 years ago, my support for her as she struggled through depression was so crucial, and that I would have a special place in her family’s heart. I honestly don’t remember what I said in the conversations with her daughter {though I do remember helping her}, but it was a reminder of how, as teachers especially, we never know who we will touch and impact.

    This is getting so long, I guess my main take on this is, while with food and sleep I talked about balance, I think with self-esteem we are far safer and better off erring on the side of genuine, honest praise.

    1. Isn’t it amazing how — as a teacher, often without even realizing it — you have the power to influence a kid’s life? Teachers can be so powerful in communicating expectations and helping kids navigate difficult times. That’s such a great story about your student… I’m sure you must be a sensitive, perceptive teacher.

  4. So interesting, Jessica, to read your observations on this topic from the perspective of both teacher *and* parent! I actually think it is far more difficult not to overpraise kids when they are very young, because so much of what they do at one and two and three IS amazing. This is what I call the paradox of milestones: the fact that all of the mundane steps babies and toddlers take (literally and metaphorically) become sublime to their parents because they are OUR babies or because we haven’t see it up close before or because we don’t have an appropriate data set to know what ‘normal’ looks like. Objectivity at this age is slipperier as a result. When they get older, there are more external indications of ability (ones that you and your kids are aware of together) so it becomes more natural to tone down the praise (or at least to contextualize it better). I think!

    1. I think that really makes sense that this is true. I am so in awe of everything that my son does, and most of those things relate in some way to milestones. I’m hoping that I will be able to tone down the praise as he gets bigger!

  5. I know we’ve already “discussed” this, but I am really over the mucho praising. Not everyone deserves a trophy, and if we continue along this vein of recognizing mediocrity, we are doing our youth AND our future a real disservice. I think a lot of the self-esteem issues stem from the fact that parents aren’t as hands-on as they used to be. Sure, we still have helicopter parents, but we also have a lot of different family dynamics that don’t allow for the quality time of yesteryear. That “face time,” if you will, is an integral part of molding a child and student, and if the role model, parent, teacher, etc. isn’t available, it directly affects the child.

    Great post, as always, Doctor 😉

  6. Last school year, I found a poster that read “Practice makes progress, NOT perfect.” I often read about some parenting philosophy and think that I must adopt all of it, at once, OR ELSE. This is what I thought about as I read your post. I think that and maybe you do too because we are of the generation that received a lot of praise growing up. In trying to change our approach to our children, with anything, it takes time and mistakes and practice.
    And, let’s face it, our kids will be mad at us for one thing or another no matter how hard we try. 🙂

    1. This is so true, Jean! No matter what we do, we’re going to screw it up in a lot of ways and our kids will probably be resentful for something.

  7. I love that last quote- that one really resonated with me, too. And in the last few days since I wrote my post, I have been keeping a mental tally of how many times I say, “Good job!” to my toddler. I’m not gonna lie- it’s not pretty.

  8. What strikes me is how difficult it is to implement the right mix of support and praise with modesty and “grit” as you say. Why is it so hard? I feel randomly bitter against the last few generations who have gotten us so off-track. We are supposed to learn about these things from our “elders”, not relearn about them when it’s practically too late and stressful to boot. Don’t you think? I don’t know.. . maybe I’m just having a bad night. 🙂

    1. Deb, I do think that a lot of this stems from the generational changes that come from the baby boomers. Let’s face: we got a lot of wonderful societal change from this generation (increasing tolerance, better music, greater equality for women and minorities) but also a lot of beliefs about self-esteem that aren’t exactly helpful.

  9. Great post! I do think we have gone overboard with the praising. At my girls’ elementary school, they get “tickets” when they are “caught being good.” They can put their tickets into a drawing for a special recreation time each week. More tickets = more chance of getting drawn. My girls don’t even care anymore. They get so many tickets they have lost their significance. I find tickets in their lunchboxes, in their pockets, even in their shoes! When I ask, “don’t you want to take these back to school and turn them in?” They usually just shrug and say “I’ve already got a bunch in the jar.” Now, granted, my kids are pretty well-behaved, so maybe these tickets have more meaning for other kids who have a more difficult time. However, I suspect that, like mine, the kids are just over it. Although reinforcing positive behavior is a great technique, rather than constantly punishing bad behavior, they have overdone it to a point where is has completely lost its effectiveness.

  10. LOVE this so much. I definitely feel like we overpraise children in a way that is often not helpful. I am trying to be really mindful with my girls of making sure that I praise their effort or their desire to work hard more so than the result.-Ashley

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  12. I love this chapter. I struggle with this myself. I have always tried to praise the work not the worker. Telling him how I see how hard he worked, how much effort he must have put into it. But being a praise junky myself, it feels so unnatural. I am waiting for the time when it feels more natural, I hope it’s soon. And that grit thing. Man, when your kid wants to give up, sometimes you can’t force him to do otherwise. I have to work on that one. Thanks Jessica!

  13. You seem to think that the only reason to praise is to boost self-esteem. Not true.
    Praise is useful for encouraging addressing conduct issues, and for getting more of the behaviors that you want:


    Of course, you can substitute other forms of positive attention. Or even neutral attention, it’s also a reinforcer.

    Positive attention to the effort, creativity, grit it took to make progress on a task is good. Asking about the process they used, having a conversation about it is bad.

    Positive attention that which you want more of is good assuming the kid is potentially able to provide more. Praising a kid’s genes is a bad idea, avoid “Your smart!”, they can’t improve their genes. Focus on what the can improve.

  14. Opps, I make a big error here:

    “Asking about the process they used, having a conversation about it is bad.”

    That’s one of the best things you can do. Got my goods and bads confused!

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