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Praise: Can Too Much Damage Your Child’s Self-Esteem?
For the purpose of this article, I’m making a distinction between praise and sincere admiration. I see praise as an attempt to manipulate another’s behavior for your own ends. When you praise someone, you are doing it because you hope that they will repeat whatever behavior came before the praise.
This may be a good thing when you are training a dog (I don’t have a dog so I can’t say for sure), but I’m not sold on the idea of ‘training’ our kids with the verbal equivalent of scooby snacks. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to remember to carry a pocket full of praise tidbits every time I leave the house. I’d like my kids to carry their motivation inside them, not eat it out of my hand.
I believe most young children naturally feel satisfied with their accomplishments. Praise may actually serve to diminish this self-esteem by interfering with the inner feedback loop. When little Johnny stacks his blocks for the first time, the process of creating the stack IS his reward. He feels an internal sense of mastery when he realizes that he has the power to change that messy pile into a neat tower.
But when we jump in to praise him because we hope he’ll do it again, we distract him from his inner sense of satisfaction. Instead we draw his attention to our evaluation of his skill. He may lose touch with his internal reward (the joy of mastery), and instead focus on earning more of our attention and approval.
When we step in too quickly and too often with praise, the path to the child’s inner source of validation may become overgrown with weeds and hard to find (use it or lose it). He or she may become dependent upon validation from ‘out there’.
And someday, sooner than you’d like to think, ‘out there’ is no longer your territory — it’s filled with peers. When that day comes for my kids, I’m hoping their internal paths to self-validation are very well worn and familiar!
To learn about alternatives to over-praising, please read my article titled Tapping Your Child’s Inner Motivation.
Copyright Karen Alonge 2006