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Praise Junkies

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Quite frequently parents ask me if there is anything they can do at home to bolster their child’s self-esteem and help their children feel more competent.  Among the skills I discuss with parents is the importance of using encouragement as opposed to praise.  “What is the difference?” you may ask.  I’ll explain the difference and why it matters in this blog post.

We have probably all encountered at least one child who seems to need constant affirmation from those around him or her.  This is the child who is constantly asking questions like, “Do you think I did a good job?”, “Is my picture pretty? Do you like it?”, “Did you see what I did? Was I a good boy (or girl)?”, and so forth.  This is also the child who, in sessions with me, creates a sand tray world (something that is highly individual and free-flowing, like art) and then asks me over and over again if I like the “world” that he or she made.  My response is always along the same lines: “What matters is what YOU think about what you made.”  Some children accept this response the first time (even if it feels uncomfortable for them) while others are so determined to get external validation, they will continue to repeatedly ask questions that are meant to solicit praise. 

There are a few simple ways to identify whether a statement is praise or encouragement:

  1. Praise emphasizes the speaker’s opinion; Encouragement emphasizes the child’s perspective.  Examples: “I love that tower you made!” vs. “You’re proud of that tower you made!”
  2. Praise tends to include a judgment; Encouragement does not.  Examples: “You are such a good boy!” vs. “You chose to help me bring in the groceries which was really thoughtful of you!”  
  3. Praise tends to focus on the outcome; Encouragement tends to focus on the process and/or effort. Examples: “Great job on your school project!” vs. “You worked hard on that school project.”

It is important to understand the risks of choosing to praise, rather than encourage, a child too frequently.  Children who become dependent on praise- who are “praise junkies” so to speak- typically grow up to be adults who continue to constantly seek approval and input from others.  Their entire self-view fluctuates, depending on the external feedback they receive.  Right after a successful meeting or a compliment from a coworker, the person feels proud and high on life, but it all comes crashing down if the accolades stop or if a criticism is perceived. 

Praise sets the stage for children to never explore their own views, thoughts or feelings in deference to the opinions of others, so they never really learn or figure out who they are as individuals.  When children feel too dependent, they either become “people pleasers” or they become defiant (or vacillate between these two responses).  For those parents who have more than one child, there is the additional consideration that when a parent praises one child, the other children question themselves and/or feel worse than they did before the statement, because they were not individually praised.  When statements are framed as encouragement, one child can receive the benefits of being encouraged without the other children being negatively impacted.

By consistently using statements of encouragement as opposed to praise, parents help their children develop a healthy sense of who they are, to explore their own opinions, views, and feelings, and have greatly enhanced resilience overall.