By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
We all understand that a wise parent doesn’t put down his or her child verbally. Instead, many parenting guides will say to catch your child doing good and praise him. Lavishly extoll his virtues and qualities, his brains, beauty, and especially his good deeds. This, they say, is the way to build healthy self-esteem in a child. However, as we shall see, there are many difficulties with this approach.
Self-esteem is just that, the esteem or perceived value that comes from the self. Praise, however, is esteem coming from the other. How can praise, therefore, propose to create self-esteem?
The Pitfalls of Praising Your Child
Evaluative praise is a value judgement, such as “You played great.” The evaluator is saying something positive but is retaining the right to pass judgement. Children think, “He is deciding I am great?” and, therefore, the sense of self that is created is dependent on you, the parent, or the one passing judgement. This is a very insecure position to be in for your child, because others can always change their minds and give him or her a negative evaluation. And, since his or her sense of self was dependent on others, it can be removed or damaged just as easily. What if the parent later disapproves or criticizes the child? His esteem will be dashed on the rocks!
Therefore, statements like “What a good boy,” and “You’re great,” and “What a beautiful picture you painted,” should be avoided if possible. I know this sounds surprising and seems to go against common sense and common practice, but we will see that it is, in fact, wise.
Evaluative praise can make your child feel guilty because he or she probably has some shortcomings and may not believe he or she is as “great” as you say. You want your child to feel great and confident, but putting him or her on a pedestal is unrealistic and feels insincere. He or she then feels the praise is not deserved. In addition, evaluative praise creates unhealthy pressure to live up to the high expectations of being “great” from now on.
Praising Your Child In Positive Ways
We need to come up with ways to get our children to make positive evaluations about themselves, to have internally driven esteem. Start by using the golden tool: describing. Instead of saying, “What a good girl, you set the table” simply describe, “You set the table, you were a big help to me.” Do you see the difference? Describing simply states the objective facts and allows your child to draw their own conclusions and make their own evaluations about themselves. She will think she is exactly as great as she feels comfortable believing herself to be. Describing doesn’t apply pressure to maintain unrealistic standards. That is just what she needs to develop true self-esteem.
Let’s say a child painted a picture that he thinks is not so great and you say it’s beautiful. This will come across as insincere, and the child will feel guilty because he feels the painting is not good. In addition, this praise will cause him to doubt his own judgement. Instead or using evaluative praise, describe the painting – “I see a big blue house right there and a yellow sun over there” – and let him draw his own conclusions. In this case, it’s healthy for the child to accept and be comfortable with the fact that he sometimes paints pictures that are not so great, and he can try and improve if he likes. Alternatively, you can ask the child, “What do you think of the painting?” This teaches your child that what he or she thinks is most important.
Instead of saying “good job on your homework,” say, “I see you’ve been working very hard for an hour,” and allow the child to conclude how good he or she is.
Praising Your Child's Looks or Deeds
When you say, “You’re such a beautiful girl,” for example, it may cause your child to think inside, “I’m really not sometimes,” or, “Some people don’t think so.” Instead, say, “That blouse looks beautiful,” or, “I think your face looks pretty with that lipstick.” Instead of saying, “You’re always so helpful,” describe specifically what he did – “Thank you for helping me clean out the car” – so he thinks “I am helpful.”
Even if your child takes the bone and believes he or she really is great, at least superficially, he or she may still feel manipulated. Praise can make your child feel like it’s only being said because you want them to do more of a desired behavior. People can become praise junkies, so to speak, only doing things because they anticipate they will be praised. This has the unfortunate effect of causing individuals to not enjoy doing the good deed itself. All rewards, including praise, promote obsession with the reward and take the pleasure out of the act itself. We don’t want our children to do things only because they will get praised; we want them to appreciate the nobility and value of the good deed. Describing, instead of offering evaluative praise, accomplishes just that.
These skills and techniques for praising your child may sound new or different from what you thought you knew about parenting, and they take a bit of study and practice.
I know that the tips in this post describe an ideal that may be hard for parents to live up to consistently. So, I recommend having patience with yourself and trying to implement these principles gradually, bit by bit.
I invite you to explore the rest of my interesting blog, the specialty pages on this website, or download one of my informative free reports for parents. If you would like personally tailored guidance about praising your child in a healthy way from a child psychotherapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!