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What Experts Really Mean When They Say 'Stop Praising Your Kid'

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Photograph by Twenty20

Just the other day, an old friend threw her arms around me and told me that she’s proud of me. She loved my book. She loves reading about me. She’s proud of me for making my dreams come true. I won’t lie: Interactions like that keep me going when I’m tired and scattered. Meaningful praise from someone who knows me well inspires me to keep writing and leaves me feeling confident.

So why on earth do we worry so much about praising children “too much”?

Many blame the self-esteem movement for a generation of empty-praisers, parents who say “Great job!” even when the “job” in question isn’t that great. Empty praisers also consistently tell their kids that they’re better than everyone else. Do you see the problem? These two things aren’t actually “praise.” The former is an empty exclamation—a pat on the back for just about anything. And the latter? Well, that’s a recipe for narcissism and decreased empathy. In fact, one study found that overvaluation by parents resulted in increased narcissism in kids. It also found, on the other hand, that parental warmth contributed to high self-esteem.

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Here’s the problem: In the age of overvaluation of children, self-esteem and praise earned bad reputations. A perceived increase in entitlement in young children caused a backlash. “Stop praising the children!” quickly became the new battle cry, while the self-esteem movement earned criticism across the board.

But self-esteem and narcissism are two very different things. While narcissistic individuals consider themselves better than others, people with high self-esteem consider themselves equal to others.

And when it comes to kids? A healthy sense of self just might be the secret sauce that helps them stand up to negative behavior, make positive choices, avoid peer pressure and tackle obstacles with confidence. They also tend to have lower rates of anxiety and depression as they grow.

When we tie praise to effort, on the other hand, we build kids up for hard work and confidence.

How do we raise kids with healthy self-esteem? We begin with those two important words: Parental warmth. Here are 4 ways to do that:

1. Show the love

Many parents tell me that they shower their kids with empty praise because they want to show their kids how much they love them. I can understand that. Last night I read a “chapter book” that my son wrote for me. Two words ran through my head as I worked my way through 54 pages of dialogue and descriptions: “You’re amazing.” When he woke me up this morning, I hugged him tight and told him about my favorite scenes in the book, and then I told him how much I love him. But what I really wanted to say was, "You're amazing."

Sometimes we offer vague praise because we want to communicate how proud we are but we aren’t sure where to begin. “I love you” and “I’m proud of you for…” are simple yet powerful statements that show unconditional love without the emotional baggage that tends to come with grand statements about exceptional achievement.

2. Praise the effort

Kids will lose games and kids will fail. No one gets through life without hitting a few obstacles and dealing with heartache along the way. When we fill their minds with superficial praise (e.g. “You’re the smartest one!” or “You’re the best player on the team!”), we actually set them up for disappointment. The hidden pressure within those statements can result in huge feelings of failure and inadequacy when things don’t go as planned.

When we tie praise to effort, on the other hand, we build kids up for hard work and confidence. We also show them that making an effort and learning is more important than winning the shiny trophy. My son’s basketball coach pulled him aside after their very first game of the season and said, “You really know how to read this game. You know where to be and when to get there—that’s an important part of the game.” That moment stayed with him for the entire season, and he still talks about it today.

Praise the steps they took, not the end result, and they'll continue to make efforts (even when the going gets tough) as they grow.

Listen when your kids need to talk. Hug them when they need comfort. Read to them when they need to check out. Share your own childhood stories to help bridge the gap.

3. Celebrate failure

This week I spoke to a large group of 10- to 15-year-old campers in a private school setting. Near the end of my speech, I challenged them to bring their failures to the surface. When we talk about the hard stuff, we get the support we need. When we try to hide our failures, our people don’t know that we need them.

All too often parents attempt to fix or wipe away failures, so that kids won’t have to experience disappointment. I have some unfortunate news: Kids experience disappointment and failure anyway. It’s part of growing up. Instead of fixing and avoiding, celebrate and discuss. As I told that group of kids, my greatest success stories stem from the failures that preceded them. When we learn to talk about and embrace our failures, we figure out how to learn from our mistakes.

Don’t let fear of failure result in empty praise or unnecessary criticism or blame of others (e.g. “You should have gotten that award, you are much smarter than him.”). Embrace failures and move forward with new information and new strategies.

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4. Be empathic

Growing up is hard. It might seem like childhood is all fun and games, but kids experience tons of micro-stressors along the way. Listen when your kids need to talk. Hug them when they need comfort. Read to them when they need to check out. Share your own childhood stories to help bridge the gap. Be there for them with empathy and unconditional love.

Your kids will thank you for it.

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