A Guide to Praise

Many parents praise their kids constantly -- but compliments may not be the best way to boost confidence.

Introduction

It's hard to believe there could be any downside to making your child feel as good as possible about himself. Undoubtedly, self-esteem is still considered to be a cornerstone of healthy child development. Kids who feel bad about themselves are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, and they may be reluctant to join in activities they might enjoy. But a growing number of experts believe that our society's emphasis on self-esteem may be backfiring-that many parents are praising their kids excessively rather than helping them build confidence as a result of their own competence.

"Some parents are afraid they'll damage their kids if they don't say, 'You're wonderful,' five times a day," says Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Clearwater, Florida, and author of Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting. As our culture has become decidedly child-centered-weekends revolve around kids' soccer games or dance classes-parents find themselves in more and more situations where it seems natural to applaud their kids' per- formance. We've all met parents who go overboard trying to make their children feel like little geniuses, Olympic athletes, or prima ballerinas.

"Like everything, praise should be given in moderation," advises Jim Taylor, Ph.D., author of Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child. "Otherwise, kids will become dependent on it and expect recognition every time they do something good. They'll become needy children who are likely to grow up to be needy adults."

Too Much of a Good Thing

Kids certainly need to know that you love and appreciate them, but they shouldn't look only to you to provide approval for their accomplishments, Dr. Taylor notes. Happy, successful kids are motivated to do their best primarily because it makes them proud of themselves.

In fact, some research has found that praise intended to encourage children can actually have the opposite effect. In a Columbia University study of kindergartners and fifth-graders, for example, kids who were lauded for their intelligence after completing various tasks later chose to do simpler tasks that would make them look good. They were more likely to avoid challenges, lose interest, and feel less confident, notes study coauthor Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., a professor of psychology.

On the other hand, kids who were praised for their efforts and strategies subsequently sought out more difficult tasks. When parents are overly effusive, it puts pressure on kids and sends the message "If you don't continue to earn my praise, you'll let me down," explains Richard M. Ryan, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Rochester. "Kids become nervous about their performance and want to please their parents."

What's more, at a young age, children start to realize when they get praise they don't deserve-and begin to doubt it. "Internally, a child knows how much effort he put in," says Ron Taffel, Ph.D., a child and family therapist in New York City and a Parents contributing editor. Research suggests that kids who are complimented enthusiastically for doing a very easy task are more likely to think they have only minimal abilities.

Even more troubling is the belief among some psychologists that working too hard to boost a child's self-esteem could foster delinquent behavior. After all, bullies tend to have an unrealistically high opinion of themselves. Some kids who've been excessively praised may later turn to drugs and alcohol to lift them up artificially, says Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D., coauthor of Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth. Kids come to rely on such escapist substances because they haven't learned how to tolerate feeling even a little bit bad. "They want to feel good all the time," Dr. Elliott says.

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