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I have a problem. I’m lazy when it comes to how I praise my 1-yr-old daughter. It’s not that I don’t encourage her—it’s that I praise her for being cute, and not for any of the other awesome things she is. I don’t want to raise a daughter who attaches the majority of her self-worth to the way she looks or the adorable little things she does. That girl won’t grow into the woman she ought to be.
Realizing that I’m doing my daughter a disservice in the way I praise her prompted me to seek out advice on how I should be doing it. What I found goes against instincts I developed growing up in an achievement-obsessed society. But I started to think about the repercussions of certain types of praise. And I understood what the experts were getting at.
As parents, it’s up to us to make sure our kids grow up with great self-esteem. Most of us attempt to fulfill that responsibility by heaping praise on them. We’ve all seen (and maybe been) the parent who becomes a one-person ticker tape parade every time their child draws a cat with the correct number of legs.
But by piling on praise all the time, we may be doing more damage than good. We’re setting up two expectations. First, we’re teaching them that the world will stop and have a party any time they achieve something. All us adults know that’s false. And second, we’re making the achievement itself all about the praise (‘bout the praise, ‘bout the praise). That teaches our kids that they should always be working to catch the brass ring of parental approval. If you know an adult whose core motivation is pleasing mom and dad, you know how much that can mess a person up.
So should we bite our tongues, becoming austere overseers, offering only a grim nod when our kids do awesome things? Well, no. That’s just as damaging. Without any praise at all, our kids won’t see any value in trying.
Instead, we need to be much more thoughtful and intentional about the way we praise our kids. If we want to raise functional, independent adults with healthy minds and healthy work ethics, we should be praising their efforts, rather than their achievements.
Let’s say your kid draws that cat I mentioned earlier. Instead of saying “Awesome job! That’s such a cute kitty!” it’s better to highlight the effort that went into the drawing. “Wow, you worked hard on that didn’t you? I’m proud of you for working so hard.” You can even ask questions about the effort and process of the achievement. Have a discussion that makes it clear what you value is the work, not only the product of the work. That goes for time when your kids fail too. Failure after an honest effort is a wonderful opportunity to praise your child’s willingness to try.
And we should focus our praise on instances where they operate outside their routine. If your kid is drawing cats every day, it’s not something you need to make a big deal about. Save your praise for when a special effort is made, or something new is attempted. If they’re intentionally practicing and improving their cat drawing skills, that’s a different story. That’s an effort worth praising.
By praising hard work instead of final achievements, we’re teaching our kids to value the doing of something, rather than having done something. They’ll grow up willing to try again—or try something different—when they fail. Because it’s the trying that means something to them, not the success.
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