Many children in the world are brought up without praise. This is sad, to say the least, and has terrible consequences for their self-esteem, behavior, and the quality of their lives as children. And as adults. Obviously, it also affects how they will raise their children.
But you are probably not such a parent. You know that praising your child is a very important part of showing how much you love her. You have read all the literature about propping up her self-esteem, about affirming good behavior with praise and discouraging bad behavior by ignoring it. Carrot, carrot, carrot. No stick. And it works.
When she’s little and tries to stand on her own, she falls with a thump. You encourage her to try again. She tries again. You praise her. Carrot. She falls back down. She tries yet again to stand up. You praise her. Carrot. She falls back down. She tries once more. Carrot. There’s no need for the stick! Everything’s perfect.
This is what happens all the time – when she says her first syllable, first word, learns to stand without support, then walk, then run. More milestones are celebrated with praise. First sentence, first scribble, saying “Please” and “Thank you”, asking for permission, listening to what Mom and Dad say (let’s be honest – this one’s called obedience 🙂), putting her toys away, feeding herself, feeding herself without making a mess, finishing all the food on her plate, dressing herself, wearing her own sandals and shoes, identifying numbers and alphabets, learning to read and then write…
Of course, potentially dangerous behaviors need to be actively discouraged, and you do so. This is the ‘Beware! List’. She has to be taught initially to stay away from – and then to be careful around – electrical sockets, hot dishes and liquids, sharp edges, glass, and so on. Whether you explain, scold, warn, demonstrate, play-act or spank, you find ways to teach her that she has to watch herself around all this and more.
Every time she successfully negotiates the ‘Beware! List’ you praise her. Of course! That’s what any loving parent would do.
So far, everything is going swimmingly.
As your child engages more with the outside world, you begin to caution him. As he grows, there are ever greater threats to his safety and security. You want to protect him from hurt – both physical and mental.
You teach him how to cross a road – not that you ever let him cross it alone at this stage, but for years you keep teaching him. “Don’t accept things from people you don’t know.” “Don’t go anywhere with a stranger.” And each time he behaves appropriately, you praise him. Carrot.
He does ‘good’ things, and you reinforce his behavior by praising him. Carrot. He avoids things from the Beware! List and you reinforce yet again with praise. Carrot.
The point is this: Too many ‘carrots’ will lead to trouble.
This doesn’t mean that you must use the ‘stick’. That is a decision that you alone can (and should) make for yourself. If your parenting style doesn’t involve the ‘stick’, know that when you withhold the carrot, you’re wielding the ‘stick’.
If your child gets praised for everything he does (and doesn’t do), he becomes a praise ‘junkie’. This phase will occur at some time or other in each child’s life, but it is important that he move beyond it relatively quickly.
It is totally understandable to heap appreciation on a 5-year old who brushes his teeth well. But if he’s expecting to be praised for the same skill at age 10, you have a problem on your hands.
Essentially, you need to wean him off the old carrots, and get him on to ‘bigger’ carrots. Like doing chores around the house, learning new skills – whatever is appropriate to his age and ability, learning new attitudes…more grown-up stuff.
What happens if you don’t?
Firstly, nobody – not even you – will be able to praise him for a particular achievement for the rest of his life. “Lovely! You tied your shoelaces so well!” sounds wonderful and genuine when your child is 7. It sounds ridiculous if he’s 12, and you probably wouldn’t dream of even mentioning it by the time he’s 15.
Secondly, after a point, the praise sounds false, even to the child, as in the ‘shoelace’ instance above. And he will wonder why you feel the need to praise him for an ordinary, everyday occurrence.
Thirdly, his thinking and behavior will be distorted by his addiction to praise. People will figure out his sensitivity to praise, and manipulate him till he’s miserable. And he won’t know why. “You share your allowance with me every week. You’re such a good friend!”
Fourthly, you may continue to find opportunities to praise him as he grows, but will anybody else? Out there in the world, who really cares? We all know the answer to that question: No one. Basically, when it comes right down to the wire, practically no one cares.
But as he begins to form relationships outside the family, and as these ties strengthen with time, he will be increasingly bewildered by these friends who are not appreciative enough of him. One of two things might then happen. Either he will redouble his efforts to win their praise, which might move him farther away from what he wants. Or he will wonder what is wrong with him. Or both things might happen.
Self-doubt, low self-esteem, discontentment, misery. Stick, stick, stick, stick. And not one of these sticks is actively wielded by anyone! Not one of them is ‘meant’! It is your child alone, who is beating himself up with these sticks.
Fifthly (is this ever going to end?!), even if he is lucky enough to find good friends, human beings are fickle. The thing that delights a person today may irritate him tomorrow, leave him unmoved the third day, and arouse his contempt on the fourth. But your child will want praise all the time! Which is simply not possible.
Your child will live without ever basking in the glow of achievement for its own sake. He will feel all his achievements diminished if they are not praised by someone (or everyone!). What a needless tragedy!
Here’s an item to add to your Beware! List: Do not kill with praise. You’ve added it? Carrot. 🙂