Praising children: The difference between enthusiasm and unrealistic expectations

By Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko on November 11, 2013

My brother-in-law wants his six-year old daughter to grow up believing she can achieve anything she sets her mind to. “Reach for the stars,” he urges her. “You can do it.” He admits though, that he has a niggling  feeling that keeps dampening his enthusiasm. What if she can’t? What if she just doesn’t have the talent or the imagination?

He tells her that if she works hard she can become a famous pianist, a great mathematician, or a movie star. But if she doesn’t have what it takes, will she become disillusioned, depressed and feel like a failure? 

From the moment they can walk, we tell our kids that they are special. Parents and teachers are directed to use praise in order to nurture their self-esteem. This support translates into complementing every little thing they do – even when it is indeed a little thing. 

I’ve sat through many children’s concerts where the audience is urged to rise to their feet to applaud mere beginners (even after having endured painful renditions of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on the violin.) “It builds their confidence,” says the well meaning instructor. Yet there’s now a growing concern that this ‘cheerleading’ style of parenting and teaching is backfiring. The result? We are fostering a culture of less-than-competent children (and eventual adults.)

“The focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy,” writes world-acclaimed researcher, author and San Diego State University Professor Jean Twenge in The Narcissism Epidemic

Hard work doesn’t seem to be part of the equation. And even those who put in their due diligence and expect rewards don’t understand that there is no guarantee of worldly success, fame or large bank accounts.

Twenge worries that because so many children, teenagers and adults are being encouraged to focus on themselves and their own entitlement, society itself is at risk. From university dropouts to marriage breakdowns – even to the mortgage crisis in the U.S. – Twenge sees evidence of a narcissistic culture.

Unconditional Happiness

“You can’t always get what you want,” sings rock’n’roll legend, Mick Jagger. He’s dead on. 

There is nothing wrong with urging our children to dream big and to reach beyond their boundaries. But there’s definitely something wrong when in our enthusiasm to praise, we help breed unrealistic expectations. How do we do the first while avoiding the latter? 

Naomi Aldort, author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, counsels young adults who have fallen into depression and are even suicidal. She’ll often encounter straight-A students who have been highly praised and told that if they follow the prescribed route to success (good grades, perfect attendance), they will attain happiness. Yet they are miserable.

“The problem is, we teach children that their satisfaction depends on achievement, and living up to the dreams of their elders,” says Naomi. But ask any parent what they want for their child and the answer is usually happiness.

“So teach them how to be happy!” Naomi says. Instead of doing a song and dance to supply whatever the child wants, we need to teach them that some desires – material or otherwise – are not primal needs and are not possible.

“We want to teach our kids to come from a place of happiness, no matter what they do. Whatever their accomplishments, unconditional happiness means that they know how to be happy” with or without praise.

In addition, parents often think that freedom means doing whatever one wants, confusing freedom and self-governing with licence.

“Freedom doesn’t mean that they should have the whole world at their disposal,” Naomi says. “That is just not true. You don’t give your child drugs or guns to try. Children cannot do whatever they want. No one can. But they can learn to enjoy and feel content experiencing real life, successes, failures, joys and tears.”

So how do we teach our children to be happy in who they are and what they do? The first thing that parents must understand is that children mirror our reaction. When we show them that it’s not the end of the world if they don’t get what they want, they learn to handle it, says Naomi.

Empowering children

As a culture, we don’t give kids nearly enough credit. We act like they are frail and unable to cope with reality. Dr. Michael Ungar is a social worker, author of Too Safe For Their Own Good: How risk and responsibility help teens thrive, and co-director of the Resilience Research Project at Dalhousie University in Halifax. To Michael, resilience helps kids figure out what they need.

“We need to give them the risk-taker’s advantage and push them into uncomfortable places, so they can see what they can handle,” he says. “Our kids’ resilience depends on what we give them, and that sometimes means giving them less, not more. Less structure, less solving problems for them and more letting them figure things out themselves, so that later on in life they have the skills to cope with bigger challenges.”

The child needs to experience him or herself as self-reliant and independent. “Provide them with enough structure to feel cared for, but enough opportunities to experience the natural consequences of the decisions they make,” says Michael. “Be sure to help them realize their potential in ways that are meaningful to them.” 

It may seem counterintuitive, but avoiding praise can actually be empowering to your child.

Says Naomi, “Praise carries the same price as other coercions: loss of motivation, loss of self-trust, inflated sense of entitlement, damaged parent-child relationship, dependency, insecurity and disinterest. 

“Instead, be present to your child. Children are not seeking praise. They are asking to be seen. The response to: ‘Mommy, look at me. Look what I can do!’ is simply, ‘I see.’ How would you feel if every time you did something an adult would say, ‘Oh. You can read! Oh, you’re doing such a good job!

“A powerful person is not a person whose life is constantly wonderful and easy. A powerful person is one who finds wonder in what is happening in life.”

See how our Mommy Diaries moms handle it at ParentsCanada.com/overpraise

Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko is a Hamilton, Ont.- based freelance writer, blogger and mother of three teens. She works as a project co-ordinator for a local not- for-profit, environmental organization. Read more at bekoko.ca.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2013.


By Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko| November 11, 2013

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