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How Praising Your Kids Could Be Hurting Them

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Dr. Meg Meeker

As parents, we are all guilty of saying things in haste to our kids that we didn’t really mean. But even our well-intentioned words of praise (when focused on the wrong things) could be having a negative effect on our kids. One of my goals as a parent and physician has been to be the kind of person who focuses not on one’s performance, but on one’s character. This is a tough challenge in a culture that over-applauds performance.

Here’s a story to demonstrate what I mean:

A few years ago, I sat with a mother who asked if she could boast about her son whom I was seeing for panic attacks. I complied. For the next five minutes or so, she exuded excitement over the fact that his grades were excellent, that he was bright and that his soccer coach recently told him that he was one of the team’s star players. Now this all sounds nice on the surface but think about the 15-year-old boy sitting on my exam table listening to his mother. He was here because he was experiencing acute anxiety over his schoolwork and about forgetting things in class. When he was with large groups of friends, his anxiety would become strong enough that he had to leave class, sit in the office and calm himself down. Sometimes he couldn’t even make it to school.

How do you think he felt when his mother praised him for getting excellent grades and for being the star of the soccer team? Do you think this made him feel better about life? I don’t think so. In fact, I know so, because I watched his face as his mother spoke. Here’s the point. She is a really good mother but she, like the rest of us conscientious parents has fallen into the trap of focusing on praising the wrong things about our kids. We think that we’re helping them feel better about themselves, but often, we aren’t, when we applaud the stuff that they do and the grades that they get.

Even well-intentioned words of praise (focused on the wrong things) could have a negative effect on our kids.

Praising a child’s performance is well and good as long as it is heavily preceded by years of praise of his character. That’s the point. Children want to be loved and admired for the person they are, not for the work that they do. The same is true with us. Don’t we all crave being admired and loved simply because we exist? If you are a person of faith, you know that’s how God loves us. He doesn’t shout from heaven: “Great job at work.  I’m so proud you got a raise” or “kudos to you for scoring the winning goal”.

No, God is far too loving for that. He shouts from heaven that He loves us because we are. That’s it. He loves us simply because he created us and that fact gives us something worth his shouting about.

Children want to be loved and admired for the person they are, not for the work that they do.

Every friend, child, parent, and spouse wants to be loved because they exist and praised because of their character, not the good stuff that they do. I encourage you to try looking for the character qualities that you admire in your loved ones (especially your children) and give it a try. Tell them how much you admire them for one character quality this month and skip “I’m so proud of you because you get good grades, etc.”

Not sure where to start? Here are a few examples to demonstrate:

“I just saw you sharing your toys! I love your generous heart.”

“You’ve been studying really hard – I’m so proud of your dedication and perseverance.”

“You’ve been so patient with your sister/brother! You have so much grace for others.”

“Thank you for displaying such kindness to the kids at school. I love your spirit of inclusion.”

“I like that you can laugh at yourself after a mistake. The joy and grace you have are such an inspiration to me.”

“You’ve done so well in soccer/gymnastics/baseball – but what impresses me most is how humble you are in your achievements.”

Feel free to acknowledge their achievements – but make the focus of the compliment be on their character traits. It takes a little practice at first, but soon it will become second nature. And I promise you, your kids will feel more loved for who they are and be more secure in themselves. And don’t forget to model this to them by praising your spouse in this way!

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