The time: 6:30 p.m.
The place: A messy kitchen.
The characters: My husband, four children, one tortoise (in the cage in the dining room. Sleepy has nothing to do with this story but I thought I’d throw him in), and me.
The scene: I’ve biked to the Co-op to buy challah for Shabbat and pedalled back up our steep hill with a backpack full of groceries. I’ve made brown rice pasta with fresh garlic and tomato sauce, artichokes, a vegetable plate, and greens and beans.
We light the candles and sing the prayers. Then everyone starts talking at once, asking for more juice, wondering what’s for dessert (there isn’t one), wanting seconds.
“Does anyone like this dinner?” I ask.
“Yeah, Mom, it’s great!” My oldest daughter, who is 12, says.
“My compliments to the chef,” my 8-year-old son agrees, his mouth full of pasta and pinchy cheese.
But my husband doesn’t say anything.
As the kids get louder James gets quieter.
Instead of appreciating my children’s praise, I feel uncertain and insecure, wondering if James isn’t enjoying the food.
“You don’t like it?” I ask.
He looks startled.
“I do,” he says defensively. “I said it was good!”
I’ve spent more than two and a half hours shopping and cooking and my kids and husband have just told me I’ve made a nice meal.
I like to cook and I think of myself as a pretty good chef.
So why don’t I feel more confident?
Why do I have the nagging sense that the kids and my husband are just humoring me, secretly thinking that the pasta’s too al dente (which it is) and that they’d rather have pizza?
The price of overpraise
In her book, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation Of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids, Madeline Levine, Ph.D., argues that praising a child’s achievements can actually have a deleterious effect on self-esteem.
If we tell our kids “good job” because they got an A on an exam, we are inadvertently criticizing their other grades–the ones they may have actually worked much harder to earn.
If we say, “I’m proud of you for doing well in Chemistry,” we suggest we are not proud of them for who they are, how hard they studied, or how they went to meet with the science teacher to get extra help.
Levine points out that despite the badges, ribbons, and lavish praise that have become part of our current culture, today’s kids are not better adjusted than they were forty years ago.
Instead, they are more emotionally troubled and less academically successful.
Why Praise is Often “Bad” Warmth:
1. Children need a realistic sense of self, not an overly inflated sense of self.
2. Indiscriminate praise makes it difficult for children to evaluate themselves realistically.
3. Overpraise does not grow a child’s character, foster compassion, or help them find a moral compass, it gives them, instead, a disturbing sense of entitlement and a tendency towards narcissism.
4. Self-absorbed children, like self-absorbed adults, are not very nice to be around.
5. We praise our children to bolster our own needs, not theirs, because it makes us feel good and it helps us control them.
6. Praising the result and not the process ignores the most critical aspects of learning: effort and improvement.
7. A child who is constantly praised for something they are good at is less likely to try to do something new, for fear of not being good at it.
8. Children need to know we love them unconditionally, for who they are, regardless of their accomplishments.
Levine argues that instead of praising achievements (“I’m so proud you got 100 on that spelling test”), noticing the effort someone has put into something, and appreciating how hard they’ve tried (whether they failed or succeeded) works better to foster good self-esteem, a good work ethic, and good values.
If my husband had said, “You really hoofed it down to the Co-op to get all the ingredients,” or “You’ve been working really hard making this meal, and I appreciate it,” I would have believed the praise was genuine, and I would have felt noticed and loved (if not for my dinner then at least for my effort), instead of thinking he was just telling me what he thought I wanted to hear.
Notice the effort, not the outcome
It feels good when someone notices the effort you’ve put into something.
It seems so much more genuine and believable than when they blandly praise the result of that effort or the result of something that didn’t take much effort at all.
I learned so much from reading The Price of Privilege. I plan to buy several copies to share with my friends.
The last book I felt that strongly about was No Impact Man.
But I’m also wondering how to put Levine’s insights into practice with my own children.
As much as any parent, I’m in the habit of saying, “Good job!” or “Well done!” about their achievements.
I even praise my toddler when she goes poop (which is sometimes quite a strain as she tends towards constipation).
What I need to do is pay attention to my children’s effort.
I thought my 11-year-old daughter’s science project was wonderful.
But instead of telling her that, maybe I could say something like, “You and Alex really managed to coordinate your schedules to work on the science project and run tests on 23 people. That’s a lot. I’m impressed with all the time you put into it and the work you did on it.”
And I could simply shut up and sit quietly with Leone when she needs my help in the bathroom.
Praising the effort instead of the achievement takes more time. It means you have to be present, notice, and pay attention. But isn’t that what we all want? For the people who love us to be present for us, to notice us, and to pay attention?
Do you think praise is helpful or hurtful? How do you feel when someone praises you? Do you overpraise your children? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
(And then, of course, there’s the flip side of the problem of praise: being overly critical can also irreparably damage our kids.)
Published: March 19, 2012
Updated: February 16, 2021