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Praise versus encouragement

When I first became a parent, all I wanted for my kids was for them to grow up believing in themselves and having great self-esteem. All my effort went into helping my kids see just how perfect they were. I would go around the house praising every little thing they did. “Wow, you are so great!” “I couldn’t have done it without you!” “You make the best pictures in the world.” “You are the prettiest, smartest, cutest …” It was enough to make any parent who had been a parent for longer than a couple of years, gag. Maybe it was an ’80s thing, I really don’t know, but somewhere along the way, I got the idea that in order for my kids to have good self-esteem I needed to praise, praise, praise them. I had a profound misunderstanding of “self-esteem.” Self-esteem is actually knowing you are a lovable person just because you have been created. The problem I was creating was not in praising them, which every parent should do, but in making it empty praise. Empty praise is when we always tell our kids how great their cartwheel is no matter how well our child actually executed it. Empty praise quickly becomes unbelievable and does nothing to encourage our children. It only succeeds in teaching them how to manipulate and makes them dependent on others for approval.My youngest had field days at school, and when she came home she told me how frustrated she was because she “won” fifth place in one of the events. After talking with her for a while I realized that fifth place was actually last place and she was embarrassed, understandably so. What possessed our school to hand out ribbons to every child that participated, whether they actually won anything or not? Kimberly knew she was last, and a ribbon did not help her feel any better about it. She even said she would have liked it if they just had ribbons for the top three places. OK adults, let’s learn from our kids. All of us come in last at some time, and we do not receive awards for it. A person with high self-esteem will be embarrassed, frustrated, etc., and still know they are a valuable person. A person with low self-esteem will believe that they are unlovable. I think as adults we are so scared of our kids getting their feelings hurt that we sugarcoat the world for them! Bad idea. Some kids actually run faster and jump higher and deserve to be recognized for their ability.So how can we build self-esteem without empty praise? Rule one: Make praise well-founded. When our children share a toy or their time with a friend we can honestly say that was a “generous” thing to do. Packing their own lunch in the morning is “responsible and thoughtful,” taking the difficult step of owning up to a mistake they made is “courageous and shows integrity.” Rule two: Be specific. When our kids draw a picture that has taken considerable effort, we can acknowledge the effort and point out something specific about the picture, like the orange flowers or the pink sun. Notice when they are doing well and let them know you notice. On field day, Kimberly would have been happier not by a ribbon that clearly did not mean anything (empty praise), but by somebody noticing that she crawled fast through the tunnel, or that her form was perfect when she threw the ball (encouragement). Kimberly needs to know she is a beautiful, brilliant and courageous person with or without a ribbon, and not just because mom tells her so (of course I could be biased on that one!). Lori Mueller is a parenting class instructor at YouthZone. Look for upcoming parenting classes at YouthZone, starting in late September.


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