When my firstborn Hannah was a baby, I decided that I needed a discipline philosophy. She was still far too young to have any real behaviour issues, of course, but I knew that one day that would change. So I did some reading. One of the first books that I checked out was Barbara Coloroso’s Kids are Worth It! I enjoyed it immensely, but I also found it challenging. The biggest challenge was what she had to say about praise – basically, that empty praise isn’t good for kids.
I am an extremely praise-dependent individual. I did well in school. I was generally compliant. I didn’t challenge authority. These are the sorts of things that lead adults to praise you, so I received a lot of praise. Praising my own children feels like second nature to me. In my mind, praise is synonymous with love. After all, who doesn’t like to hear how awesome they are? The idea of not praising struck me as cold, and maybe even cruel.
And then I looked at myself a little more closely. I was so accustomed to receiving positive feedback throughout my academic career that I believed something was terribly wrong when someone wasn’t praising me. As a result, I became a pleaser and a perfectionist. I did things to make other people happy and keep the praise coming. If I couldn’t do a task very well, I didn’t even try, because of my need to be good at everything I did.
There are upsides to my classic Type A personality, of course. Nothing in life is all good or all bad. All the same, I wish that my own sense of self-worth wasn’t so defined by others. I wish that I was more willing to experiment and try new things, especially when I was younger. I wish that my need to fit in and garner praise hadn’t limited some of my choices as it did. So I don’t particularly want the same thing for my children, the same dependence on praise.
When I decided to stop using praise, it shocked me to see how much a part of my daily life it was. I said, “Good job!” every few minutes, and not in a conscious way. I praised on auto-pilot. I praised Hannah for sitting on my lap, for listening to a story, for not throwing a block. She was a pre-verbal child, an infant. She didn’t need my praise, and she probably didn’t even understand it. I was praising her simply because I was in the habit.
Deciding to avoid praise doesn’t mean that I never say nice things to my kids. I offer them encouragement when they need it. When they take genuine delight in an accomplishment I say, “Wow, you did it!” or, “Look at you!” I tell them how much I love them many times a day. When Hannah says, “I look pretty, don’t I?” I say, “I always think you’re beautiful, because you’re my child.” I offer my sincere thanks when one of my kids helps me out. I don’t consider myself cold, and I don’t hold back when it comes to sharing joy with my kids.
I am not sure what steering clear of praise has done for my children. Hannah is now 5, and Jacob is only 21 months. Their personalities are still unfolding, and they are nowhere near old enough to re-hash parenting techniques. I hope they don’t share my perfectionism and my need to please. There really are no guarantees in parenting, though, so my choices may or may not influence things in the way I hope. For now, I am just doing the best I can every day. My choice to avoid praise might not be for everyone, but it works for my family. And that’s pretty much the best anyone can hope for, I think.
So, tell me, how do you feel about praise? Do you find it encouraging, or limiting, when someone offers a constant string of compliments? And do you think that praise is a useful parenting technique? Please share!