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Why We Praise Our Kids Too Much

I’m keenly aware that parents these days praise their children way too much. This isn’t news. Spend some time with a tween, teen or twentysomething, and you’ll find pretty quickly that her entitlement goes from zero to 60 without ever breaking a nail—but even if she does have a misshapen cuticle, she’ll tell you it’s because only very special people have excess skin surrounding their nail beds. From whence did she get that idea? Her starry-eyed parents, of course.

Newsflash: Those parents aren’t doing their kids any favors. A new study out of Stanford University says eschewing praise and instead affirming hard work is the way to go.

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"It's better to focus on effort and the action your baby is doing,” says Stanford University psychology professor Carol S. Dweck, the author of the study, which was published in the journal Child Development.

Dweck and her co-authors found that the type of praise parents heap on their young children affects motivations later in life, as well as children’s beliefs about themselves.

Praising effort increases motivation and “encourages strategies for handling failure,” Dweck says.

But what about those kids who have come to expect a trophy just for signing up to be on a team—no matter whether they win or lose? What happens when your kid’s teachers and babysitters praise every project, paper and popsicle-stick craft? Are you supposed to be the bad guy and let your kid know that ice cream–based art is hardly art at all? Or that her third win in a row at Candyland is anything less than Herculean?

Not every parent is guilty of blowing smoke up their child’s not-so-impressively drawn chimneys. Oftentimes it’s everyone else who sets him up on a high horse, despite your own best efforts as a parent to give him a realistic view of his skills while letting him know that hard work can be just as rewarding as natural talent.

Isn’t it better to err on the side of praise?

Take me, for instance. My 5-year-old is an avid arts-and-crafter, though I have no delusions that her proficiencies with a magic marker and glue stick are much better than any other kindergartner. She, on the other hand, does not appreciate those sentiments.

“Look, mommy!” she’ll exclaim every time she draws Minnie Mouse with a body the size of a Smurf and hands that could swat an adult lion as easily as a mosquito. “Isn’t this beautiful?”

“Oh,” I say with a smile. “I see you spent a lot of time on that.”

She narrows her eyes at me. “But isn’t it beautiful?” she insists.

So what, exactly, am I supposed to say at that point? It’s fine? It’s average? It will get taken out with the evening trash when you’re not looking? Am I supposed to give her a gold star for each of the dozen-and-a-half drawings she creates daily? Or should I be the evil stage mom who gives her honest feedback, letting her know she has to work on her dimensions and shading if the picture stands any chance of making it into the folder of artwork I save for the 2013/2014 academic year?

I want my daughter to want to challenge herself. I want her to want to work hard for the satisfaction of digging in and doing her best. I also want her to know that, despite her efforts, each painting will not eventually be hung at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—but that doesn’t mean she should stop trying and enjoying drawing.

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I also don’t want to crush her when she seeks praise for what’s actually on the paper if she believes it’s beautiful. She needs to learn that it’s OK to fail, but how do I do that when she genuinely believes each brush stroke is wildly successful? Isn’t it better to err on the side of praise, even if it means you end up paying for an awful lot of manicures to remedy those hangnails?

No one said parenting is supposed to be easy, but who knew one of the hard parts would be sending your children back to the literal drawing board instead of the framing store?

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