by Mark Gregston
March 6th, 2020
There’s a right way and a wrong way to praise your child. Anyone who has ever been shopping or eating out has experienced the public fallout from the wrong way. Try as you might, you can’t ignore that out-of-control kid whose painful whining or outright tantrum causes you to cringe and look for the nearest exit. They remind me of the pampered Veruca Salt in the film, Willy Wonka, who screams out, “I want my Oompa Loompa … NOW!”
What causes unholy terrors like that? I’m thinking of some parents who could give us a clue. From the moment their two daughters came howling into this world, this mom and dad hyper attuned themselves to their every need, thought, feeling, and so-called success. Every time their kids put on their shoes, brushed their teeth correctly—or pretty much exhaled CO2, it was “Great job!” and “You’re so smart!” and “You’re so talented!” Their failures were reframed as the ubiquitous “Good try!” Unfortunately, these self-esteem building exercises produced teens who suffered from “center-of-the-universe-itis.”
Ironically, a recent study shows that rather than build self-esteem, heaps of indiscriminate praise on kids combined with swooping in to “save” them from the natural consequences of their actions, actually serves to lower their self-esteem. Depression and anxiety are increasing at an alarming rate among 20-something year olds. Notably, these are not young men and women who suffered abuse or parental neglect as children. Quite the opposite. Rather than hearing “Mommy Dearest” type descriptors from their patients as they describe their upbringing, therapists are listening to words that sound more like “Mommy Nearest.”Phrases like, “My parents let me try any activity I wanted … drove me to every game and recital … told me I could achieve anything in life … intervened whenever I got bullied or or didn’t get invited to a birthday party,” are increasingly common.
Another recent study from Ohio State University concludes that constant—and undue—praise for our kids’ tiniest accomplishments, or non-accomplishments, may have the unintended side-effect of creating an over-inflated ego—accompanied by depression. And this can have serious consequences both in childhood and later on in life.
So, what is the right way to praise our kids? Many parents fear raising kids who think they’re the center of the universe, or as college deans dub it today, “teacups”—creatures so fragile that they break down anytime things don’t go their way. That’s understandable. However, you don’t want to go in the other direction—either by adopting your parents’ or grandparents’ view that “children should be seen but not heard” and/or ruling your home with an iron fist, thereby squashing your child’s spirit.
Here are some key ways that will help you know how, when and how often—to praise your child or teen.
HOW OFTEN? There’s a saying that a child should be praised 10 times as much as they are corrected. I tend to agree. That’s why I have parents try a simple exercise. Start counting the times you say, “You need to…” or “What you should’ve done…” (or similar phrases) to your teen. You may be surprised how many times those types of comments come out of your mouth. If you spend more time criticizing than encouraging, judging than training, condemning than approving, you’re slowly eating away at a relationship with your child. So be intentional about finding positive behaviors, actions, and attitudes for which you can praise your child. A well-timed word of encouragement in the midst of failure is worth more than an hour of praise after success. As the proverb says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).
FOR WHAT? DO praise achievements. But be specific. Research shows that it’s important to avoid generalizations and to be specific about their actions, not your feelings. (“You practiced so hard for that dance recital,” or “I could see how focused you were during that science project.”) Zero in on areas your kid can control—and improve—to reach her goals, including discipline, perseverance, kindness and respect. DON’T praise your kids for easy tasks that should be part of normal family life like doing the dishes or tossing her jeans in the hamper. That just makes other praise less meaningful. When praise is truly deserved, it becomes a powerful motivating force.
IN WHAT WAY? Sincerity is key. Teens especially can spot insincerity in a second. To avoid fakery, don’t dole out compliments so insipid that they mean nothing. For example, when your tween or teen takes it upon herself to help her grandmother with a task, don’t say, “Oh you were so nice to grandma—good job!” That smacks of patronization and manipulation. A better approach would be to acknowledge your teen’s act of self sacrifice, then ask her how she thinks grandma is doing health wise. This helps build concern for others, while also reinforcing a positive action.
Sometimes the most effective strategy is to withhold praise. “Kids know when they’ve made a generous or mature choice,” says Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the author of The Blessing of a B Minus. “And the intrinsic gratification they get is its own private reward.” This is good advice. Because you won’t always be there to give Johnny a “high five” when he’s living on his own and volunteers at a soup kitchen or finally figures out how to change the oil in his car. By trusting kids to know when they’ve made the right character choices, we establish a cycle in which they don’t need others to reinforce their successes.
Live in Whoville … Not Doville
A word of caution: It’s critical that you don’t tie in your love for your children based on their performance. “You are what you produce” has become the unspoken mantra in our Western culture. This pushes teens to link their core identity with how successful they are. This can cause them to grow discouraged or feel like they can’t measure up to our hopes or their own goals. The simple truth is that God loves us for our who—not our do … and so should you when it comes to your kids! It’s your job to make sure that your teen actually believes it when you tell them: “There’s nothing you could say to make me love you less, and nothing you can do to cause me to love you more.”
Bless, Even If They’re a Mess
A close companion of praising your teen, is blessing them. Proverbs 18:21 tells us that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” With that in mind, write down what you appreciate about your kids, the specific gifts you see in them, and then read it out loud at a family event! Make sure these are blessings that: (1) affirm and approve; (2) commend and compliment; (3) speak love and affection; (4) invoke hope and self-confidence; (5) answer disappointment with support and faith; and (6) picture a special future for your child. This may be out of your comfort zone, but it will leave a lasting impression on your kids.
A word about No. 6: Picturing a special future for your child. We see this principle modeled in Numbers 6:24-26. God ordained that the priests of Israel speak blessing in His name over His own children, whom He called “the children” of Israel. This blessing was transmitted to every succeeding generation for use and exercise by faith. Even today, Jewish homes are noted for picturing a special future for their children. It’s also a promise for Christians—an exercise that we should practice over our children with boldness. If you have a hard time doing this, because your teen may be rebelling and acting out in the moment, have faith. And keep praying for a different future for your child. You’re the parent and you’ve got the God-given power and authority to do this.
Love, Love, Love
Last but certainly not least, the best way to bless your child is to tell them repeatedly how much you love them! Interestingly, in a recent study on the origins of narcissism in children published in the National Academy of Sciences Journal, social scientists concluded that parents believing their child to be more special and more entitled than others cultivate narcissism in children. “In contrast,” they wrote, “high self-esteem in children is cultivated by parental warmth: parents expressing affection and appreciation toward their child.”
We’ve always been told that actions speak louder than words, but that’s not always true.I grew up knowing my dad loved me, but I never heard him say it. And it left a big hole in my heart. Sometimes saying, “I love you” can speak to the heart of your child louder than any gift or action could. So play an active role in your teen’s security and confidence. Go tell your teen and the rest of your family that you love them! Mom and Dad, say the three words to your teen: I – love – you. Your verbal affirmation and praise can give your children confidence, security and a sense of warmth they can’t get anywhere else.
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 39 years, has two kids, and four grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy. His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,500 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.
You can find out more about Heartlight at www.HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our Parenting Today’s Teens website at www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org. It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. There you will also find a station near you where you can listen to the Parenting Today’s Teens radio broadcast, or download the podcast of the most recent programs.