How Much is Too Much?

by Mary Jo Rapini

I was on my run the other day and stopped at the park to get some water. I sat on a bench to quench my thirst, closed my eyes and listened. Among the happiest sounds in the world are children at play: their little voices, their excited screams, their bargaining with their parents for more time to play.
What I also overheard: “Mommy, was that good?” and “Daddy, did you see that throw?” The mom and dad each responded with affirming comments such as “Good job!”
Are we raising a generation of kids who expect praise for almost anything?

Expecting and receiving praise on a regular basis weren’t standard when I was a kid – or at least I don’t remember that happening much in my family. Eastern cultures believe too much praise causes kids to grow up into self-serving adults with big egos who are lazy. They may have something there; more and more young people seem not to have as strong of a work ethic as previous generations. These are likely the same kids who grew up getting an allowance “just because.” However, the whole idea behind an allowance is to instill the concept of working for pay (by doing chores, for example) and to teach a youngster to manage money. Like praise, it seems that some parents are giving away allowance for free.
Is praise bad for kids? No, not if done appropriately. For example, research has shown that praising a small toddler for having good manners actually does produce more polite teens. When might praise be inappropriate? When you praise your Little League pitcher simply for throwing a good pitch. You should not necessarily praise a child’s gifts or natural talents. However, if you praise your star ballplayer for being compassionate toward another player, or for demonstrating excellent sportsmanship – that’s praise that can ultimately serve your child well.
It can all be so confusing for parents. One doctor tells you to praise your kids; your own parents may tell you not to. If you were raised by parents who rarely praised you, you may be determined to regularly praise your children. But, from your kids’ point of view, praising too often could mean one of two things: that you feel sorry for them and think they need praise because they are losers; or that you aren’t really engaged with them because you are praising them for something they already know. Here are a few guidelines that will help you re-consider before you praise:

Be careful praising them for what comes naturally.

If you praise your kid for an A in math that comes easily, your child may end up taking fewer risks and be less willing to fail. He could worry that you won’t praise him for the effort. This can cause anxious, hesitant kids.

Be careful praising kids for something they love to do.

This can lead a child to believe that he must always love what he’s doing. Such children may grow up thinking life shouldn’t be so hard; they can be easily defeated when challenged.

Using comparisons with other children can backfire.

Telling your children that they are better, stronger or more attractive than their peers makes children grow up to think in a win/lose mindset. They become very competitive. These children may not seek to understand others; they will seek to win an argument, win a position, or win a relationship. Don’t forget, no matter whom you know or how high you go, getting along with others can make or break you. Teaching your kids to be compassionate and polite can be more important and more highly correlated to their future happiness and success than promoting comparisons and competitiveness.

Praising your youngster for physical attractiveness should be used with caution.

As a parent, it is easy to tell children how beautiful or handsome they are. When a girl is praised for her looks, it tells her that the person issuing the praise puts a real value on physical appearance. The media’s focus on looks and beauty puts additional pressure on girls to “look pretty.” Your daughter in middle school may begin to think she cannot leave the house without her hair and makeup done. Encouragement and modest praise when your child is discouraged with, for example, a tedious practice schedule or difficult lesson plan will help build your child’s self-esteem more than telling her how pretty she is.  
When praising, bear in mind a child’s age and developmental level. If you praise a teen insincerely, he may think you are trying to manipulate him. A toddler may need to hear frequently that he did good work, or you liked the colors he chose. Kids naturally will begin building their own internal confidence if they face a challenge and work well with it. Constantly telling children how great they are makes them take fewer risks to try the very challenges that will build their self-esteem. Praise is powerful, so use it wisely.

Mary Jo Rapini is a licensed psychotherapist and co-author with Janine J. Sherman of Start Talking: A Girl’s Guide for You and Your Mom About Health, Sex or Whatever.

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