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A Guide to Praise

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.

Positive Reinforcement

Of course, you don't want to go to the opposite extreme and withhold praise altogether-or try to make your child feel bad sometimes in an attempt to make her stronger in the long run. The best way for kids to build confidence is to see themselves excel at everyday activities-scoring baskets, making friends, acing spelling tests. Here's how to help your child feel good about herself without pressuring her to be perfect.

Be specific

To make praise more meaningful, make your compliments descriptive ("I liked the way you sounded out that sentence") rather than general ("Good job!"). This way, you give your child a sense of why what he did was worthy of approval, and he can repeat it in the future.

Emphasize effort rather than outcome

Focus on attitude, problem-solving skills, and other areas over which your child has control, Dr. Taylor suggests. You might say, "You were so focused in that tennis match" or "You were very careful to color inside the lines." Then, if your child doesn't do well the next time, she'll be more likely to attribute it to a lack of effort than to a lack of talent, Dr. Dweck's studies have shown. "Kids need to see that when they work hard, they do well," Dr. Taylor says.

Speak honestly

Praise your child for things you feel are deserving of recognition, not for things that clearly came easily or were done hastily. When you think he could have done better or tried harder, you can give constructive feedback. "As long as you express it in a positive, loving, supportive way, kids will see that it's in their best interest," Dr. Taylor says. For example, you could say, "You did pretty well. Might you have done better if you'd tried harder? How do you think you would feel if you'd put in more of an effort?"

Help your child critique herself

"Kids who feel the best about themselves have done things that they feel are important," says Joseph S. Renzulli, Ph.D., director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut, in Storrs. If your child asks, "Do you like my poem?" turn the question back to her: "What do you like about it?" Over time, your child will derive more of her own pleasure from her accomplishments, without needing your pat on the back.

Be strategic

Rather than compliment your child for basic things you expect of him, like clearing his plate or brushing his teeth, save praise for behavior he needs to improve. For example, you might say, "It was generous of you to offer some of your candy to your sister" or "Thanks for putting your blocks away without my asking. It's so much easier when we all pitch in."

Accept mistakes

Your child needs to know that your love is not contingent upon her succeeding all the time. So when she lets a soccer goal past her or gets a math problem wrong, talk about how she might approach it differently the next time and reassure her that practice will help her improve. "When kids stumble, a lot of parents want to run to the rescue-correcting their homework before they hand it in, or even calling teachers to dispute poor grades," says Kelly Inosencio, a middle-school teacher in Parma, Michigan. "This deprives children of the chance to develop their own tools to deal with adversity that real life brings."

Take stock

Consider whether bolstering your kids' confidence might actually be serving your own needs more than theirs. Are you trying to get them to be the little stars you want them to be? It's also important not to use praise to earn your children's love. Parents who are particularly busy may be most likely to pour on the praise. "They don't want to criticize their kids in the little time they have with them, and so they tend to overdo it when they're finally to- gether," says Barry Lubetkin, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Behavior Therapy, in New York City. Ultimately, you have to find your own middle ground between loving encouragement and gratuitous praise. Some kids need more reassurance than others, such as shy children who need coaxing to come out of the woodwork and younger kids who are not yet getting feedback from friends, teachers, or coaches. "The crucial word is balance," Dr. Peters says. "If you do anything too much, the impact gets watered down."

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the July 2003 issue of Parents magazine.