As parents, we walk this fine line between guarding our child’s self-esteem and his/her humility. In a recent post, I described some tactics for fostering healthy self-esteem. Both self-esteem and humility are skills—perspectives, really—that must be taught. They are two sides of a Christ-centered identity cube. (Is it a cube? Hmm…We’ll have to dig into that later.)
Just to get us started on healthy humility, here are two ways NOT to praise our children. Next week, I’ll add two ways NOT to address failure. (Because this started getting long, I’ve divided it into two parts.) How we talk about success and failure go a long way toward that healthy self-esteem we seek for our children…and ourselves.
2 Ways NOT to Praise Our Children
Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to praise, when to praise, and how to praise our children productively. There’s no exhaustive list of the right and wrong times. The most important thing about praising your children (or anyone) is that it must be authentic. We all know those fake one-liners that fall flat before they even reach our ears. I call that “plastic praise.”
Praise them only when they win.
Of course we want to praise our children when they succeed. We should praise them at those times. But we also need to praise them when they fail well. There’s much to be learned in failure, if we handle it properly. Praise their effort, their graciousness toward their opponent, their self-control. Even in success, focus on these things and on God’s blessings (health, strength, intelligence) that brought about their success.
In success: “Wow, Hope, you did well in karate today! I saw how you remembered so much of what you’ve been taught and put it into practice. You fought hard, and you deserved to win! I also saw how you helped your opponent get up at the end. You showed real sportsmanship there. I thank God for giving you a strong body and a kind spirit.”
In failure: “Hey, Hope. I know you’re disappointed that you didn’t win. You fought hard, though. I could tell that you’ve been paying attention in karate class; you used some pretty advanced moves out there. That was some good sportsmanship at the end, too, when you shook hands with your opponent. I’m thankful for your attitude and that you tried so hard.”
Praise them for doing what they are supposed to do anyway.
This involves keeping the rules, doing chores, and other expectations. Save the big praise for improvements or changes that required effort.
There’s no harm in the occasional comment about their ability to follow rules, but a focus on rule-keeping leads to little Pharisees. It bases their value in behavior rather than character. Focus instead on the choices they make to follow the rules even when it’s difficult. Look for demonstrations of strong character and for times when it was difficult to obey but they chose that more difficult route.
There’s also nothing wrong with mentioning their completed chores or other tasks, but emphasize consistency or exceptional attention to the work. Use comments like, “I’ve noticed that you made up your bed every day this week without being reminded.” or “Your bed-making skills have really improved over the last few months.” This type of praise emphasizes improvement and character rather than reducing the praise to a checklist.
In our home, I have to remind the kids to practice their instruments every day, so I don’t praise them for doing it. I will praise one when I tell him to go practice and he does it immediately. I will praise another for improvements in skill level. I’m looking forward to the day when they practice without prompting!
Obedience must be the expectation not the exception.
Let me repeat the exception to this praise policy: When the child has struggled to keep a certain rule or meet a certain expectation or when he/she is learning a new task. In those cases, be quick to praise and recognize even the smallest success!
A person is praised according to their prudence… -Proverbs 12:8a
Come back next week for some thoughts on talking with our kids about their failures. In the mean time, how have you used praise effectively in parenting?
Update 5.11.16: I just read this great, science-backed article on how we phrase praise! Perfect timing.
Update 7.20.16: This discussion/excerpt of The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz contributes a wealth of observation to our discussion. Think I’m going to read the whole book…