In a world that seems to divide more and more distinctly daily, we wonder what role ‘overpraise’ has in this phenomenon, and whether there really is even such a thing?
We’d like to thank Joanne Blackerby for this guest post a bit back. We believe that there are truths today that are still worth hearing.
There is a commonality among the varied approaches, styles and philosophies of parenting and child-rearing—regardless of what parenting style or philosophy is practiced or embraced, it is clear that we all want the best for our children. We want them to have meaningful and fulfilling lives and feel confident about themselves. We want them to be recognized as the unique and special individuals we know they are. But how far are we willing to go to protect our kids’ sense of self and self-esteem? Are we willing to risk dishonesty or overpraise?
A recent television commercial caught my eye, advertising disposable pull-on underwear for potty training. The commercial depicted a common family vignette: celebrating a toddler’s success in going potty. The ad caught my eye not because it reminded me of potty training my own kids, but because of the outrageous celebration of the child’s potty experience. When the child makes a successful first flush, a lavish mechanical toy automaton is set into motion: it’s like a Disney ride with flying balls and planes and marble mazes, ultimately exploding in the living room with confetti fireworks and “congratulations!” banners. At first watch, I was thrust into brief despair at the thought of my own parental inadequacy. I never celebrated any of my now-grown children’s first potty successes this way.
With my oldest packing for college, my second preparing for high school and my youngest entering fourth grade, I found myself, albeit briefly, aghast and wondering whether my lack of elaborate potty celebration throughout the years meant I sentenced them to a life of low self-esteem.
Toilet training is a natural step toward a child’s self-efficacy and independence and mastering the toilet is a natural progression of growth and development. But are we as parents playing to our children’s ego in the excessive celebration of even the most mundane aspects of growing up? Moreover, what happens when the child experiences an almost inevitable potty accident? What then? Do we give a gold star or trophy for trying to go potty? Do we mention the accident or just pretend it never happened? Is there a prize or at least a medal or trophy for potty effort?
The potty metaphor maybe a bit exaggerated, but the question remains: how do we teach our kids how to manage life without expecting a big band parade for flushing the toilet? If overpraise starts at potty training, when does it stop?
There was a time when kids learned their place in the world through navigating the extrinsic hierarchies of playground rules and peer social groups. There was a time when not all kids made it on to every team, no matter how they tried, and there was a time when kids failed a school project or assignment even if they tried. There was a time when not everything was “fair” (and fairness was really beside the point, because life is not fair). That’s the whole point of hard work and the ultimate need for strong character. Things may not have been fair, but they were true, and failures prepared us all for the realities of life.
Our kids no longer try, try and try again. The old adage has long fallen silent. The standardization of education, sports and even play has made it difficult to know what real and consistent achievement is. Parents circle and hover around their kids wanting to ensure their child’s success everywhere: in the classroom, on the field and on the playground. We have created a direct correlation between self-esteem and success when there is none.
We believe that:
- Success = High Self-Esteem
- High Self-Esteem = Success
But what if the success is artificial? Then it wouldn’t it make sense that it would result in artificial self-esteem? A disproportionate sense of entitlement and belief in self?
Consider the child on the playing field that is simply not skilled in the sport being played. He is not interested in the sport, does not practice the skills required. The team suffers at his lack of skill and the coaches are frustrated because they are required to give the child field time. The kid is oblivious to his lack of skill and work ethic because his community focuses on building his self esteem, on constantly boosting his ego, giving high fives all around. This sport is not his sport, but rather than be honest with him his community veils him from the reality of his skill. In doing so, the kids keeps playing, however poorly, stays the season, and at the end receives the same trophy as all the kids on the team, including those who were top-skilled players. The same scene plays out in on other fields, in dance studios, on recital stages, and classrooms. If you never know you are not good at something, then how can you learn what improvement is?
Why are we so fearful of allowing our children to fail? We’re facing a generation of kids who feel good about themselves for no reason. We are raising children who do not believe the rules apply to them because we have abandoned the rules. We want to level all playing fields and the results are lost opportunities for children to discover how to develop their own talents, skills and character.
We reinforce the belief that success is not measured by skill development, effort, hard work and competitive achievement but more and more by “everyone is deserving of praise regardless of effort, skill, or work ethic.” Consider the impact on the child that truly works hard and fails. Failure is a powerful motivator, but it has to be practiced.
When parents act in a way that their children should be praised no matter what, they put their child in a “fixed-mindset.” Research has found that a fixed-mindset can cripple children well into adulthood. A child who feels like they should never challenge themselves for fear of failure won’t be able to perform independently as a young adult. Whenever a challenge faces them, they will find themselves completely crippled and, usually, going to mom or dad for help.
On the other hand, overpraising your child can lead them to also feel as though they will never live up to your expectations. They fear that when they *do* make a mistake, that the lack of praise will be extensive. This can cause extreme anxiety in children who feel as though they can’t ever make a mistake or that their will not be able to perform at the level their parents want them to.
Sadly, our own fear of parental inadequacy is nurturing a generation of Trophy Kids: children who expect a trophy or recognition for doing what all kids are supposed to do: grow up. Attempts to keep our children feeling good about themselves are resulting in a generation of self-absorbed children who are quickly losing the capability to see the value in anyone or anything beyond themselves. The “I am special just because” child’s mentality can create a conceited and narcissistic young adult.
Research has found that overpraising your child, or giving them “something” in recognition for a seemingly minimal and minute task can be harmful to your child’s psyche. A study completed in 2015 by Stanford University researchers found that overpraising your child may actually lead them to become narcissistic.
The study looked at two competing theories of narcissism- one is that narcissism is a personality disorder and the other that narcissism can be created by parents who are constantly telling their child, or acting in ways that tells their child, that they are special and exceptional compared to their peers and those around them.
There is a parenting term for parents who are constantly praising or removing obstacles for their children- lawnmower parenting. Lawnmower parenting basically means that parents will give their child extreme praise in the form of verbal praise or gifts and rewards for everyday behavior. They will also model that behavior to their child by removing any obstacle that makes life more difficult. For example, they might talk to a teacher about how they are “failing” their child when their child didn’t study for a test and got a bad grade. They are the parents you hear about calling their child’s college professors or showing up at interviews with their children. They fail to allow their child to take care of any issue on their own, thereby crippling them, and making them feel as though they are entitled to special treatment as they get older.
If we truly want the best for our kids, we must be willing to admit that they are not the best at absolutely every endeavor. Life is not fair. We must allow them all of life’s bumps, bruises and hurt feelings so they have the honest and genuine opportunity to navigate life’s challenges. Ultimately a child’s real sense of himself will come through the truth and consequences of his efforts, work and commitment to the community around him.
Related: The Craze for Endless Praise
In fact, research has found that children who independently overcome a fear or a challenge are happier with themselves than their counterparts. In a study conducted by famous child behavior analyst Carol S. Dweck Ph.D., of Standford University’s School of Education, found that children who were praised with terms like “You worked so hard on that!” versus “Good job!” enjoyed solving the set of puzzles given more than the children who were simply praised with blanket praise phrases. This speaks to the idea that when parents praise their children, which is good practice as a parent, they should praise the process, not the person.
A balanced child is one who learns his success and worth is not just defined by how good he is, but also how he lives goodness.
Joanne Blackerby (www.joanneblackerby.com) is an ACE (American Council of Exercise) certified Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist, and the author of Training Effects: Reflections on the Art of Personhood Training. She lives in Austin with her husband and three children.