Good Job: bad parenting?


I’ve seen a handful of articles recently on the perils of praise addiction.  Most of them have been around for a while, but really, before I became a mom I was unaware of all the potential pitfalls of parenting.  But the other day someone tossed out a couple links in an online discussion and it got me thinking about the concept.

If you’re unfamilair with the topic of praise addiction, the idea is that too much praise can have a negative impact on a child’s emotional development, just as too much punishment can.  Over-praising allegedly teaches children to do things primarily because it pleases their parents, rather than because it’s enjoyable for the child.  Heaping praise on a child for simply picking up his blocks grooms him to expect over-the-top accolades, and leads to depression later when he no longer gets mad props for doing everyday tasks.  It may have long-term effects on his self-esteem, the activities he chooses or avoids, and his relationships.  It denies him the chance to evaluate himself and determine his own worthiness.  There’s even a school of thought called Unconditional Parenting that would like us to expunge the phrase “Good job!” from all interactions with our children.

While I’m no praise junkie, I did identify with some of the articles’ descriptions of adult behaviors of over-praised kids.  I frequently mentally measure myself against my friends and co-workers, and feel inadequate when their performance is objectively or subjectively better than mine.  Trying new things is really tough for me–what if I don’t do well?  What if I don’t like it?  Why can’t I just stay right here in my happy safe comfort zone?

These traits and others I know all too well were called out in The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids.  The article describes what happened when psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia compared praising fifth-graders for their intelligence to praising them for their efforts.  Turns out, telling a child that she’s “really smart!” sends the message that it’s her IQ that is valued most.  If she’s asked to do a task at which she’s less skilled, she might balk at it, because by not doing well, she reveals a lack of the intelligence that she was lauded for before.

In contrast, praising her for trying hard or putting in good effort sends the message that it’s less important whether she’s good at something; what matters is that she took on the challenge.   The students in Dweck’s study who got props for their efforts took on harder tasks and enjoyed them more, even when they didn’t do well.

Clearly, I’d like to send my own children a better message.  But though it sounds straightforward when presented as a study of hundreds of children, it’s murkier when it’s your own child whom you’re trying not to emotionally mangle.  Right around the time I first read about the Dweck study, my then-infant son learned how to operate a light switch.   He would turn to me with a look of delight and pride–isn’t this great? I do this and the room gets dark!–and seriously, how could I not respond to that?  I was proud of him!  Why shouldn’t I tell him so?   He wasn’t merely learning how to flip a switch, he was learning that he could control elements of his environment, and he was inviting me to share the joy of this discovery.  It just felt right to respond the way I did.

Fortunately, there are parenting experts out there to fit everyone, and the last article I found gave me some hope that I wasn’t completely beyond redemption.   Ruth Peters’ take on it is, Make Praise Appropriate, Not Addictive.  In a nutshell, exercise moderation in doling out praise, and be sure to compliment their efforts as well as their results.  I do wonder, though, whether we might be in danger of swinging too far the other way–of raising a generation where kids feel they should be merited solely for making an effort, even if it doesn’t pan out.  Because in the real world, that’s not what happens. Jobs, raises, and promotions aren’t handed out just because you showed up and took a swipe at it.  The real world rewards Results.  “I tried” may score some points, but “I tried and succeeded” scores more.  Perhaps the key is to teach our children that it’s not just the trying, but rather the trying to do better, that ultimately reaps the benefits.

By now, turning off the lights in the hallway and bedroom is just part of our going-to-bed routine, and flipping a light switch is old hat for my Kiddo.   Now our response is more of an acknowledgement than an accolade.  Now, I’ve got a 15-month-old who just this past weekend got the confidence to let go of the couch and walk across the room on his own.   The look on his face as he free-toddles over to me is almost beyond words.  He’s beaming like this walking business is one of the best things he’s ever stumbled across, and he laughs and throws himself into my lap for a hug.  I can’t help it; the words just tumble out.  “Look at you, walking all the way across the room!” I exclaim, squeezing him tightly.   “You did that without holding on to anything!  GOOD JOB!”


Author: Jessica Wallace

I'm a wife, mother, and software engineer living near Seattle, Washington. I like doing competitive puzzle events like the MIT Mystery Hunt and The Game. I've recently started learning a bit about candymaking, much to the delight of my husband, friends, and co-workers.

2 thoughts on “Good Job: bad parenting?

  1. As a professional web programmer active in 2010, I must advise you to solve this Social problem with Gamification: Instead of praise, set up a system of achievement badges… and maybe a leaderboard.

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