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The Importance of Praising Character

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Dr. Meg Meeker

The New Year is well underway and now that the novelty of having a fresh start has worn off, let us not forget that in the eyes of our Lord, we have a new beginning opportunity every single day. So considering this, will you continue to join me on my venture to become a nicer person? We have talked about changing the way we talk and finding more restful time during the day by slicing hours with electronics away from our days, so let’s keep going.

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 obnoxiously over-applauds performance. Just this morning 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.

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? 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.

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. This month, I’m going to look at my loved ones and try to praise them for one character quality that I admire. When I am tempted to tell my college son that I am proud of his work, I will search into his being and applaud the better part of who he is, which is his tenderness, his ability to persevere and his tenacity. After all, that’s what I would want someone to do for me.

How about you? Try looking for the character qualities that you admire in your loved ones (especially your children) and give it a go. Tell them how much you admire them for one character quality this month and skip the pat “I’m so proud of you because you get good grades, etc.” It just might change your relationship.

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