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Sometimes Praise Is Exactly the Right Thing for Kids

Recently a video went viral of a U.K. mom blogger ranting about over-praising our kids. One thing she talks about is telling them their artwork is good when it is “rubbish. They’re not gonna be an artist.”

I know a talented videographer and professional musician. He was talking about his first big show. He couldn’t believe that he was playing at such a big venue and that his dream had come true. After the show, he wished his mom had been there to see him. He called her and said, “Thank you for lying to me.” His mother was surprised and said, “When did I lie to you?” He said, “You always told me I was a great drummer even when I wasn’t. But because you made me think I was, I continued with my dream and worked hard and made it happen.”

MORE: Are You Praising Your Child Too Much?

This type of situation comes up daily in my office as a psychologist when I’m consulting with parents about their children: “She thinks she has friends, but she really doesn’t." "He thinks he is a good reader, but he really isn’t." "He loves basketball and thinks he is good, but he's definitely falling behind his teammates.” All of these conversations end with something like, “Should we tell her the truth?” and “Should we still let him play?”

Think back to when your young child showed you the first few times she dressed herself. What did you say? I am guessing something like, “You look so cute! Did you do that all by yourself?” And when your young child showed you his scribbly scratch drawings, you probably said, “Look at that beautiful picture! Tell me what you drew.”

I think parenting today is more difficult than parenting used to be. It is more difficult because we have become more aware of how our behavior as parents, and as people, impacts our children’s development—their sense of who they are, how they feel in the world and how they cope with life. As an example, child-development experts and psychologists warn against praising kids too much. Yet withholding feedback also has adverse outcomes.

This most important issue that I have seen in my practice, and in my own life as a parent of three (now all adolescents), is to be aware of ourselves and our own parenting behavior and goals. We all have “parenting footprints” that were left on us by our parents, and we are all leaving “parenting footprints” on our kids. This may feel like a big responsibility, but the good news is that we can choose the footprints we want to leave on our kids by being aware of ourselves—aware of our triggers, our emotion or behavior, and yes, what we say to our kids.

My two high-schoolers have a pretty rigorous test and homework load this year. They are each different, with different approaches to organization and school work. When one gets an A without studying, do I say, “Good job!”? When the other works hard on an essay for a week and gets a B-, do I say, “You could have done better. I want to see an A next time.”?

The issue is not what the “right” or “wrong” thing to say is, but that what we say matters. It matters because our kids care what we say (even if they say they don’t), and they internalize the messages they hear from us and incorporate them into their internal sense of self. Our children’s internal voice sounds like this: “I can … I can’t … I am good … I am bad … I am loveable … I am not loveable … I am worthy … I am not worthy.” When we are aware of the footprint we want to leave on our children, we can choose our goals for our children, which then drives our parenting behavior and what we tell our kids.

The issue is not what the 'right' or 'wrong' thing to say is, but that what we say matters.

Do you think about what you are going to say to your kids before giving them feedback about their behavior or performance? Since I talk with parents all day about parenting and their children, I feel strongly that I need to practice what I preach. Even being immersed in the parenting field, I can tell you that it is very hard to always think before responding. However, I think it is very important to think before we respond to our kids when they ask us about something that is important to them. It's challenging when we are tired or emotionally reactive, but we also have the opportunity for a teaching moment.

One strategy I use is to think about the person I want my child to be in the future and then consider how different responses and feedback will either help shape that behavior—and ultimately that person—or not. My suggestions:

• Give yourself time to think before responding.

• Remember we don’t have to come up with all the answers in the moment, especially when we are angry or emotional.

• Let your child see you as human—a living, breathing person, not just Mom or Dad.

• Communicate that you care.

• Tell your child you want to think about the situation or question, and want to make sure you have time to think it through before answering.

Ultimately, we need to be kind to ourselves and have reasonable standards for ourselves as individuals and parents. We don’t have to choose every single word we say to our kids, but we do need to be aware that our emotions, behavior and words matter. The next time your child thinks they are good at something when they are not, what will you say? Or better yet, what will you say to yourself before responding? What footprint do you want to leave?

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For more on sane ways to raise confident, kind, resilient kids and to set limits with a great deal of LOVE, check out "ToughLOVE: Raising Confident, Kind, Resilient Kids."

Daniel B. Peters, PhD is a psychologist, author and co-founder of Parent Footprint, an interactive parenting education community and website that offers Parent Footprint Awareness Training with the mission to make the world a more compassionate and loving place—one parent and one child at a time. He is host of the “Parent Footprint Podcast with Dr. Dan” and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Psychology Today.