When Praising Your Child Does More Harm Than Good

I really don’t want to beat this whole parenting thing to death — and I’m sure no matter how well we raise our kids they will still hate us as teens and need both life coaches and therapists — but we really need to talk about praise.

I just read through a parenting book that said that there’s a problem with praising your child, and that it will only set them up for disappointment. Of course, I started thinking about all the things I told my child today like, “You’re so smart,” and “You’re so fast,” and, “You’re so great!”

According to Linda Hatfield, Ty Hatfield and Wendy Thomas Russel, authors of the book “ParentShift: Ten Universal Truths That Will Change the Way You Raise Your Kids” praising your child incessantly could be doing more harm than good. “Leading parenting experts will tell you that praise, as a rule of thumb, is something to avoid,” they write. “Rather than boosting a child’s self-esteem, praise has an insidious way of tearing it down.”

As I write this, I hear my kid climbing up on our couch saying, “Look at me!” and my husband answering, “Nice job!” (Note to self: Talk to husband about praise.)

The authors define praise as “an expression of approval that glorifies a child’s behavior or accomplishment in hopes that the child will repeat the behavior or action.”

The book argues that praise puts the focus on the parent’s judgement, not the child’s. “Though we rarely realize it, praise is often a form of manipulation, it keeps the child looking to us for validation rather than teaching her to look within for products of her worth,” the authors say.

They might have a point here. My boy does love a lot of attention from us — but who can blame him?

To Praise Or Not To Praise?

I checked in with some moms to see if they thought praise was a parenting faux pas, and the reviews were mixed. Here’s what they had to say:

“That’s a very Montessori perspective! I’ve found myself saying things like, ‘You’re working so hard!’ or, ‘You’re being so creative!’ It’s challenging, and I still praise her —not as a way to manipulate but to show her just how much she’s loved and how wonderful she is. But I definitely don’t want my daughter to feel like she has to live to please me or get my approval.” —Stephanie Bohde Norlin

“I was raised without much praise and I struggle still, seeking validation from the world. Now, I praise my son for his efforts, and for his kindness, though not so much for the things he does without effort. Less of, ‘You’re so smart and handsome,’ and more of, ‘You worked really hard on that complicated problem,’ and, ‘That was a really generous choice you made.’ It will shock no one to hear that different kids need different things. I’ve seen kids where heaps of praise (or criticism, for that matter) have mattered little to them. My kid is sensitive and anxious. Praise works for us.” —Amber Norwood

“The idea is not that we criticize or withhold approval as some commenters have suggested, but rather that we focus more on helping her develop intrinsic motivation and self-worth, rather than always looking to us for approval. We particularly try to avoid ‘good job.’ Instead, we make statements like, ‘You finished the whole puzzle on your own. That must make you feel proud.’ Or ask questions like, ‘Tell me about what you drew. Why did you choose those colors?’ or,’How do you feel about your picture?'” —Mary Beth Foster

“[During my son’s Bar Mitzvah speech], though of course I was proud of him, what I really wanted to convey was that he should feel so good about himself for all he had accomplished. So that’s how I ended my speech. Just a subtle shift, but it felt like an important one!” —Julie Lieberman Neale

Tips From The Experts

Should you want to take the authors’ suggestion to replace praise with encouragement, here are some tips they recommend:

1. Use words that notice rather than judge. Instead of saying, “You’re the best,” say, “You look so happy!”

2. Show appreciation with an agenda. Instead of saying something like, “You did that correctly,” you might say, “Thank you for helping me!”

3. Focus on your child’s feelings. Instead of saying, “I’m so proud of you for doing well on a test,” say, “Congratulations, you worked so hard. How do you feel?”

4. Emphasize the journey over accomplishment. Instead of saying, “You’re so fast on that bike, say, “It looks like you’re loving your bike. Look at you go!”

I’m going to have to work on this. Even though all my kid wants to hear from me is that he’s fast and fierce like a cheetah, I will have to say something like, “You must feel so fast and fierce!” And then I’ll give him a cookie, out of guilt! Ok, scratch that last part. Either way, I hope no matter what we say or do, he feels good about himself — and won’t need too much of that therapy later in life.

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