Posted by: Hannah | 05/24/2013


I think a lot about praise.

I think about it in terms of how many times during an average day I hear “don’t you like my [insert thing here]?” or “Han-NAH, look at THIS!” I think often and ruefully how much praise I personally need in order to feel good.

I joke about it. I say that I run on praise or someone needs to fill my praise tank. It’s well-known in my family that if you tell me something like “we just can’t do this without you” or “what a wonderful job you’re doing” that I will overextend myself to a ridiculous degree. It’s a problem, actually, because I’m so determined to have other people lavish compliments on me that I will twist myself in knots to help them take advantage of me.

It’s not often that I feel a sense of personal satisfaction for a job well done. I’m not easily motivated by my own internal voice. In the same way that I can be totally destroyed by a negative comment, a positive one – even if it’s not sincere – will fluff me up for hours.

Back before he went totally off the rails, Dr. Phil used to say some things about child-rearing that made good sense. (No, he really did, shut up, even a broken clock is right twice a day). He said that children need to be able to predict with 100% accuracy the consequences of their actions, which is true, and is one of  my guiding parenting principles.

He also told a story once about his older son coming to him when he was very small, and asking for praise because he’d learned to tie his shoes. According to the story, he said “that’s a good job you did. You must be proud of yourself for figuring that out!

And I had a bit of an “a-ha” moment, because I think that’s the component that’s missing from a lot of parent/child interactions.

By all means, compliment them sincerely if they do something well – and that can be anywhere on the continuum, from being kind to a friend to learning how to swim. But make sure that you work in there somewhere that they themselves should be taking pride in their own accomplishments.

There is a lot of discussion about how to build self-esteem in children. Back in the 80s, it became de rigueur to find something to praise each of us for. We were all special unique snowflakes, and we were awesome just the way we were.

That pattern continued and is intensifying to this day, I think. Now we are not only telling our kids that they are unique and special, we are saying that every single thing they do is worthy of praise.

We’ve created a nation of praise-junkies.

Just today, I saw this in action when I picked Ron up from preschool. The kids had made caterpillars out of marshmallows; they glued a line of five marshmallows on a leaf-shaped piece of paper, painted the marshmallows, and glued on some googly eyes. These are some reactions I overheard:

“That’s cute!”

“You did a nice job!”

“Look at these! They are beautiful! You are an artist! You are so talented!”

That last one was to a pair of twins who’ll be starting big kid school in the fall. They are five and a half years old and were walking away from their grandmother’s extravagant, over-the-top praise with total disinterest.

And of course they were, because it’s nothing new to them to have their every move praised lavishly by the adults in their life.

We all want to encourage our kids. There’s nothing wrong with that. But what a wonderful gift, if we could instill in them the qualities that allow them to encourage themselves!


I’m struggling with this topic, because there is so much more to it, I think. I’m feeling my way through this, sort of mulling it over to myself as I’m writing. Expect to see more in the coming days.



  1. I’m so the same way, but I almost NEVER get praise. PH is wonderful in many ways, but it never occurs to him to give pats on the head or random encouragement. He’s never negative or critical, either, which helps a great deal, but still, it’s extremely rare for me to hear “you did a good job!” or “you’re great at this” from anybody, ever, except occasionally on the internets.

    Which is why I like blogging.

    We praise Owl a lot but we’re careful to praise things like hard work and determination rather than applying labels like “smart” or “talented”. We want him to take pride in his work, more than the results thereof.

  2. I really struggle with this too. I tried to stop myself from the reflexive ‘good job’ at everything from walking up the stairs to eating a blueberry, but it’s hard when you’re all you’ve got for conversation all day and dammit, your little people are cute and entertaining while learning how to hold up their heads and barf less. I liked something I read that said to emphasize the learning process rather than the end result – saying “I’m proud of you for figuring it out” or working with a friend on a problem or something rather than “I’m proud of you for getting a good mark” or building a block tower or whatever. This, apparently, makes kids less afraid of trying new things because they’re getting praised for trying to think critically and creatively rather than for achieving something (which makes them afraid to try things because they might not do them perfecty). Agh, long-winded. As for my need for praise – there isn’t a comment box big enough.

  3. I read something similar about praise years back and, as a result, have tried hard (with varying degrees of success) in the course of raising my kids to do two things: (1) praise the effort rather than the result, i.e, I can see you worked hard on that or I am proud that you stuck with it even when it was difficult and (2) try to remember to tell my kids they should be proud of themselves when things work out. I have no idea if either of these things is working in today’s overly praised society, but I don’t think they are hurting any. They feel like the right advice at least 😉

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