Why Lavishing Your Child With Praise Isn’t Always The Right Thing To Do

Nadia McSheffrey talks the pros and cons of praising your children...
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I was sitting in the park last week with my son and I overheard a mother talking to her young daughter. They were both in high spirits and I could hear the mum saying things like ‘good job’, ‘well done’, ‘you’re so clever!’. The little girl was navigating a small obstacle course and she frequently looked over to see if her mum was watching her. Every time she took a step, she waited for the positive, encouraging comments. Pretty normal occurrence, yes? We hear these things all the time and as parents, I’m sure you’ve lavished words of praise on your children when they’ve built a block tower or come home with full marks on their spelling tests. 


Brain research indicates that we respond to social approval in much the same way that we respond to rewards such as money or food. We get a boost of the neurotransmitter ‘dopamine’ and it feels great! But praise is a controversial topic in the conscious parenting community. You see there are a few difficult issues when it comes to saying things like ‘good job’ to our children. Don’t get me wrong, I bestow my fair share of encouraging comments to the children I work with and indeed my eight year old son, but I try to use the phrases mindfully. 


So, what’s the big deal about praise? Surely, it’s a good thing? Well no, not necessarily. There are a number of studies reporting that some types of praise can actually undermine a child’s motivation, damage their self-esteem, foster the tendency to ‘people-please’ or even in some cases, fuel the development of narcissism by inflating the ego. Now before you think I’m being overly-dramatic, please hear me out.


When our children are young, they are learning about the different feelings they have and the emotions they experience. They are also learning how to generate positive feelings about themselves. We want our children to develop a sense of pride, confidence and worthiness from within. However, if we are constantly praising our children, then they will learn that they only feel proud, confident or worthy, when other people ‘deliver’ these feelings to them.


Children will learn that they have to wait for external validation to feel good about themselves or their accomplishments. We all know that it is rewarding to get the approval of others. We are pack animals by nature and we are wired to seek the approval of others to develop a sense of belonging. When we get a compliment from our partner about the meal we have prepared or a client or our boss recognises the effort we have put in at work, it feels good. Children are no different. 


To get a positive comment from a teacher or a sports’ coach is fantastic but it shouldn’t be the main focus. We want children to look inwardly and notice when they feel proud of themselves. We want them to feel positive both in the presence of external validation but more importantly, in absence of that praise. What if you have a praise junkie? Do you remember the dopamine I mentioned at the beginning? Well dopamine is addictive. And in the same way, your child can become addicted to praise.


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If your child is completely dependent upon feelings of self-worth from external sources, then you’re going to have to withdraw a little. I’m not saying go cold-turkey, but you will need to rein in such gushing comments as ‘you’re the best in the world’. When your child asks for your opinion on something they have just done, turn the tables. Ask them how they feel about it. Try to draw out their internal sense of pride by asking questions about the process. ‘How did you feel when you fell a few times practising your cartwheel?’, ‘how did you feel once you did it?’. Match their energy. If they are excited, then show your excitement too, but you don’t need to heap on the verbal approval as well. 


When we mirror their energy, it is our child’s expression of their internal feelings that dictates our reaction; not our own opinion. In my home, I often shift the focus from praise to gratitude. Rather than saying ‘good boy’ to my son for getting his kit ready for swimming lessons, I’ll say ‘thank you for being prepared, it really saved me some time – I appreciate that’. Using gratitude helps children to realise that there is a constructive purpose to some of their actions.


When you think about it, some of our go-to praise phrases are meaningless anyway; ‘great job, well done, good girl’. None of these actually tell our children what they have done well. I prefer to get specific and comment on resilience, ingenuity, or bravery for example. I don’t reward my son if he scores a goal in his football match, but I will comment on the way he supports his team-mates or helps the opposite player after falling over. I am modelling to him the importance of developing his character strengths and focusing on values rather than the final result.


But what about those children who are highly critical of themselves and have low self-esteem or for those children who are just having a dip in confidence? I know it is tempting to go over the top to make them feel better but we shouldn’t be in such a hurry to rush our child through uncomfortable feelings. 


When we try to replace their negativity with false positivity, we deny our children the experience of actually feeling these challenging emotions. This is what builds the foundation of long-lasting self-esteem. Furthermore, if we forcefully try to cheer them up, then this tells them that they are only valuable when they are excelling. And that’s simply not true. I’m sure we all want our children to feel good about themselves whatever the circumstances, but especially when things aren’t going well. They need to know that they are still valuable when they’re behind in their reading or they fail a driving test.


They need to know that our love for them doesn’t change based on their accolades or achievements. We can’t be good at everything all of the time. We will make mistakes and we will fail. This is ok. Being resilient is more important than being perfect.


So, I’m not telling you to never compliment your child or clap enthusiastically at the end of their school play, but what I am saying is be aware of your words and actions. Praise should always be the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

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