The Perils of Praise


What’s your reaction if I tell you that you are the sweetest, finest, brightest, most talented and beautiful person I have ever known?

You will probably have several reactions:

1. It’s nice to be appreciated. It feels good.

2. I’m not sure you know me very well. Or you don’t know the real me. I have lots of faults and limitations.

3. I’ll be a little anxious when I’m around you for fear you will find evidence that your high appraisal of me was mistaken. Or I will choose easy tasks so I can appear to be successful.

This last reaction is just what Carol Dweck found in her research with children. When we tell kids how amazing they are, we make them uncomfortable. They don’t want to appear as failures so, in the future, they choose easier tasks. Praise can be disabling.

This discovery fits well with the gospel. When Jesus commanded us not to judge, He did not say, “Do not judge negatively.” He said, “Do not judge.” Apparently it can be damaging to hang heavy labels on people—either positive or negative ones.

But here is the key point: Positivity is extremely important! It is vital for feeling valued. It is wonderfully encouraging and motivating. But we can encourage people without hanging heavy labels on them. What should we do instead of praising and judging them?

1. We can describe our reaction to them. “I love your laughter.” “I am amazed at the way you concentrate.” “It is a joy to be with you.”

2. We can describe our reaction to their doings. “Your picture made me feel the warmth of the sun.” “Your story made your characters so real!” “I can’t believe that you could get your room so organized!”

As the brilliant psychologist Haim Ginott observed, our words should “deal only with children’s efforts and accomplishments, not with their character and personality” (2003, p. 32).

I want to be balanced in discussing the problems of praise. Every child will survive an enthusiastic aunt or grandpa gushing: “You are the sweetest thing on the planet! You are the best!” In fact we are all glad for such an explosion of appreciation from people in our lives. Positivity is absolutely vital for all of us. It is only as we feel the burden of unrealistic expectations that positivity becomes immobilizing. It is better to appreciate effort than evaluate character.

So show appreciation and affection to the children in your life. Children need a steady stream of encouragement. But try to describe your reaction to their efforts rather than hang a heavy label on them.

For most of us the challenge is that we correct our children too much. We may not be consistently positive and encouraging. Watch your children—especially the child who is difficult—and look for opportunities to be more positive. Make special efforts to notice and appreciate their efforts.

Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child is the classic parenting book. [Disclosure: I helped revise the original book to create the new edition.] Many agree; this is one of the most important books ever written on understanding the emotional world of children. I think it is the best parenting book in print.
If you want to know more about Carol Dweck’s research, her book, Mindset, is a readable and sensible book.

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