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Do You Praise Your Kids Too Much?
Yesterday I was listening to the radio and was reminded of that fact that the people with the highest self-esteem tend to be those on death row. Those who feel best about themselves are often criminals. Indeed, that's WHY they're criminals. They think they are the best, that they are special, and thus they don't have to live by other people's rules.

Our society has become completely sideswiped by the self-esteem movement. If kids are having problems, it must be because they don't feel good enough about themselves, the argument goes. So if they're having trouble learning their multiplication facts, let's work on helping them feel special, rather than helping them learn that 7 * 8 = 56. (do you know the trick to remembering that? It's just 5-6-7-8).

Schools have courses on boosting kids' self-esteem. All over elementary schools you see posters saying, "I'm special!". But I'm reminded of that awesome line in The Incredibles, spoken by Dash, complaining after his mother is saying that all kids are special. "That's just another way of saying that nobody is." And he's right.

I once knew a single mom who had pictures of her daughter all over the house. Now I have pictures of my kids all over the house, too, but this was almost pathological. They were often set up as if they were shrines to this girl, who was definitely not special. I don't like to be mean, but she wasn't bright, she wasn't athletic, she wasn't musical, she wasn't pretty, but most of all, she was a downright miserable and annoying child to be with, especially as she hit 10 and 11.

I'm not one who believes that everybody has to be extraordinary in some area. I think we all do have strengths, but I think character is far more important than innate giftings. Develop love and compassion and integrity and responsibility, and you will be a special person. And anyone can develop these character traits. A person who is motivated, hard-working, and kind, even if they're not extraordinarily bright, will go further in life than a person who is brilliant but lazy, mean, and arrogant.

How we raise our kids, then, needs to take this into account. Don't always go telling them they're special or they will stop trying. If every tiny bit of effort they put in is amazing, then how will they ever strive for more? New York Magazine wrote an article about this a while back, looking at why kids who were bright often underperformed. Here's what researchers found:

For the past ten years, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia (she’s now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise on students in a dozen New York schools. Her seminal work—a series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders—paints the picture most clearly.

Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

The most important thing you can instill in your kids is character. So praise character issues, not innate abilities. They didn't do anything to achieve those innate abilities; the praise should come with what they then do with it.

As a homeschooling mom, I know that if my kids don't try hard, they don't get rewarded. If they try and still can't do it, that doesn't matter at all to me. The important thing is the effort.

Be careful of what you praise your kids for. Don't praise them for being "smart", or they may easily stop trying. Don't praise them for being "beautiful", because then the emphasis in their life is misdirected. Praise them instead for being honest, for trying hard, for showing creativity, for being polite.

All of this, of course, is in moderation. I do tell my girls they're beautiful (as does their father), because that's important when teenage girls hit puberty. But they know that's not their main characteristic.

The idea of praising kids just for WHO THEY ARE is nonsense and makes no sense theologically. We are fallen creatures. Anything good in us is from God. Let's instead praise kids for WHOSE they are and for what they've done about it. Tell them God loves them. Tell them God chose them for something great, and that He has a plan for their lives where they can show others His love. Praise them for acting in godly ways. And if they happen to be brilliant or gifted at something, reinforce that that gift is from God, and with the gift comes the responsibility to use it for Him.

If we all did that, our jails would likely empty out, because we wouldn't be raising narcissists. We'd be raising good kids with an accurate opinion of their abilities. Wouldn't that be better?

Tell me what you think! Have you been overwhelmed by the self-esteem movement at your child's school? What do you praise in your child? I'd love to know!


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At 9:16 AM , Blogger THEE QUEST said…

Your post today about how we praise our kids "too" much is so true. Our whole society is trying to re-inforce positiveness in kids and increase self esteem. I fail to see how all this praise helps.Schools are full of obese children that are insecure, lonely, scared.Should we just be telling them that they are beautiful? I do not believe in all this crap. Kids are from God. Are they all obese in His Image? You have a unique perspective that many should see and listen to.Thank you for your thoughts.Pierre from the Thee Quest Team


At 10:07 AM , Blogger Shana said…

I tell people this all the time. I was one of the smart kids. I was constantly told how smart I was. I was always expected to do perfect. Now my Mom didn't punish me if I didn't get perfect scores but I felt awful if I didn't because I was "smart enough to do anything". So praise even meant for good like my Mom did it can be hindering. I felt so much pressure to be perfect because I wanted to live up to her expectations of how smart I was. So a lot of times if I couldn't be perfect I wouldn't do anything. I know that a 168 IQ at 9 years old is smart but you know what? I didn't use it because of too much praise. I fiddled around when taking my gifted classes exams. I fiddled around on my CRCT's. I didn't want to not be perfect. I didn't do home work but aced my tests so I still failed. it made me kind of lazy and fell like I didn't have anything to strive for. Anyway, just my little 2 cents on this post. I think you are right on with this.


At 10:45 AM , Blogger Sheila said…

This comment has been removed by the author.


At 10:46 AM , Blogger Sheila said…

Thanks for your comments!

Shana, that is SO interesting. Do you think it would have made a difference if your parents had praised your effort? Or did it backfire more because you thought your worth was in your brains, and if you failed at something then you'd be worthless again? There's a lot of potential psychological damage we can do by praising the wrong things, isn't there?

Of course, dear readers, all parents make mistakes, so don't beat yourself up. Just a quick reminder here to watch what you say!


At 11:09 AM , Blogger Tessa said…

It was really great to read this. I truly want to encourage my son in everything he does. I'm a big believer in having a positive attitude. I tell him things like you're an amazing boy and mama loves you, and papa loves you, and most importantly Jesus loves you. And he actually applauds himself when he puts a puzzle piece in right. Sometimes he just plunks it down and starts clapping so I help him figure out how to put it in properly before we applaud. I can tell my son is one who really thrives off of verbal encouragement (takes after his mom) but the next chid might not.
I think it's important that we communicate love and praise in a language our children understand. The language our children understand best is just our presence.

Do you have any thoughts on how a lot of schools (don't know about Ontario but here in Alberta anyway) are not failing children anymore? This is another big reason why I want to homeschool! I want to teach my child(ren) that you can succeed with hard work that is done correctly. That there is a right and a wrong answer. Kind of like how do we appriciate Gods love if we do not trials? That's just my 2 cents.


At 1:56 PM , Blogger LauraLee Shaw said…

I really like the idea of praising our kids for their actions, not their characteristics. Even deeper, as my kids get older, I remind them that it is Christ in them that helps them do good things. I know a lot of adults who think their worth comes from the good stuff they do, and then they spend weeks in depression when they do something sinful.

Back to your post, I have three kids that popped into my head as I read your advice, and looking back, they are all kids that have been praised a TON by their parents. Wow, I think you've stumbled onto something here! Keep 'em comin!


At 6:29 AM , Anonymous Tanya Glanzman said…

Probably I DO praise my kids too much-but I don't mean to. This has been an issue that I have struggled with as I raise my children...just one more area of BALANCE- my ever enduring quest. I remember after my daughter being born holding her that night in the hospital room and feeling so tremendously inadequate- I remember being so overwhelmed with the thoughts of wanting to do EVERYTHING right as her mother...I wanted to be the mother that I never had. My mother was a drug addict- she never praised me for anything- I was molested by my father, stepfather and grandfather- not a whole lot of praise coming from that direction either-- God has been so faithful to heal, redeem and restore my life in so many areas- I was told I wouldn't even be able to HAVE children due to the abuse I had undergone-- but God is Faithful and I did have two beautiful children.
I grew up so deprived of love, positive attention and encouragement that I probably have gone overboard in this area in my children's lives- I never wanted either one of them to ever feel how I had felt as a child- it is interesting to see their two different personalities form and how they each receive praise-- my daughter is naturally hard on herself- when I am trying to convince her that (for instance if she is having a difficult time "getting" a new math concept) that "it's no big deal" or "mistakes are how we learn" she is beating herself up and feeling "stupid"-- funny that these are the same issues that my husband struggles with. My son (much more like his mother) pretty much takes everything in stride- he thinks he is great and it would take quite a bit to convince him otherwise--he is also loving, sensitive, caring and has a servants heart- he also can be prideful, selfish and self-seeking-- so can I--so can anyone. I certainly do my best to teach them that their worth comes from the Lord- because He created them with a Plan and a Purpose-- I teach them character, manners, etc... all the things a mom is suppose to teach- and I DO correct them, set boundaries and limits, and teach them when I see a hole in the wall of their character development- but more than anything what I teach them is that I LOVE YOU "God loves you NOMATTER what" He thinks your great no matter what- even when you make wrong choices you can run into His arms and He will hold you--Nothing you could do could separate you from Him love...and I think your great too!

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About Me

Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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