Why it's okay to praise our kids

Praising kids is not the enemy to raising resilient ones.
Praising kids is not the enemy to raising resilient ones. Photo: Marc Romanelli/Getty

My four-year-old son likes to run. Lately, I've found an easy way to kill 15 minutes is to time him while he dashes off around the playground, again and again, trying to beat his time. I encourage him after every lap - the fast ones and the slow ones. Recently, he was racing with my husband. My husband won; my son cried. They raced again and my husband let him win. My son proclaimed himself the fastest four-year-old ever. We did not correct him.

David Brooks recently wrote an op-ed titled Love and Merit. He begins with "well known facts" that kids today are over-praised and "incessantly told they are special." He then explains that parents - with the best intentions - use praise to manipulate kids into behaving as we want them to. This is then perceived by children as conditional love. " The wolf of conditional love is lurking. . ." It stung a little because I'm afraid I've seen that wolf huffing and puffing.

Meanwhile, findings from a new study out of the University of Amsterdam proclaimed parents could be to blame for raising narcissists. The argument that parents today overpraise, over value, and coddle their children, was raised again.

Another popular article recently making the rounds points to the problems of modern parenting - mainly, we're straying too far from the way were raised. We focus too much on scheduling, organics, safety, smothering.

There is a growing chorus warning that parents today are too soft. We're too focused on trying to build self-esteem, being liked by our kids, and shielding them from the realities of life. In an attempt to steer clear of the sins committed by our own parents, and like every generation that has come before, we are vowing to do better; to be different; and steering ourselves off the road.

The pendulum of time is always swinging back and forth to extremes - helicopter parenting to free range parenting, authoritarian to permissive - making it nearly impossible to find balance. (Why do we have such trouble with balance?) We blame our shortcomings and failings on our upbringing, hit reverse and hope we'll find the sweet spot.

Am I doing this all wrong? Should I tell my four-year-old that in fact, he is not, nor probably ever will be, the fastest kid in the world? Am I a helicopter parent because I play with my kids at the playground? Am I setting my kids up to feel entitled by telling them they are special?

In a former life, I was a secondary school teacher. I saw many over-privileged kids who were coddled, praised and given medals just for showing up. I saw them throw tantrums (literal and metaphoric) when they didn't receive the grade they were sure they "deserved." I saw them look at me with a mixture of confusion and anger when I tried to explain the difference between deserved and earned. I met with well meaning parents who wanted to know how they could help their child and didn't understand when the advice was to stop talking to me about it. I was in school systems where the problem is not getting parents to show up, but getting them to not show up.

This experience, I was sure, was preparing me to parent well: to offer tough love when appropriate and soft love when necessary. My experiences parenting, I am sure, are convincing me that parenting is, well, difficult.

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We have more information at our fingertips then any other generation. We are bombarded with opinions and studies and stories and statistics. Are we making this more difficult than it needs to be?

While my kids are still years away from the growing pressures of high school and high stakes college applications, I know that how I discipline, praise and love my kids today will leave an imprint in the lifetime of years that follow. Can I dismiss the chorus as cacophony?

Brooks warns that when we praise our children, " They come to feel that love is not something that they deserve because of who they intrinsically are but is something they have to earn." Praise and love are not synonyms. Showing our children love when they do something we dislike is far more powerful then any damage that might be done from praise. Wouldn't this make a clear distinction between the child and the behaviour?

I want my kids to know they are special. I want them to believe we all are special. Maybe if they believe everyone is special in different ways, it will make them kinder, feel less threatened, and curious to find what sets them apart. Maybe they'll have the confidence to dig deeper and work harder to get what they deserve. Maybe they'll be more empathic to others because they'll understand that our differences need to be celebrated. Maybe, instead of feeling entitled, they'll believe all are worthy.

I need to let my kids fail. I get it. I've seen the payoff. I've seen students climb back up and watched the failure boost self-esteem and the students emerge stronger. I don't want my kids to get a trophy just for showing up. But I want them to believe they could be the one to win the trophy, if they work for it. I want them to believe they could be the one in one million. I want them to be realists and idealists. I want them to be dreamers and pragmatists. I want to praise them for good behaviour without feeling this is condition for my love. I want to keep them safe while teaching them independence.

There is no sweet spot in parenting. Like life, it is a series of step and missteps. It is adjusting and readjusting. It's sometimes winning and sometimes losing. We research and analyse and try to make sense of something that is based as much on knowledge as it is on instinct. And all our instincts are different. I believe there is no right way to parent. I'm letting myself believe that as long as you treat every day as a new day to find balance, there is no wrong way.

I see my son gain confidence by proclaiming he is the fastest four-year-old in the world. And for now, I'm letting him believe.

Kathleen Siddell lives in Singapore with her husband and two boys. She resists the term "mommy blogger" but reluctantly admits she is a mother who writes a blog. You can follow her family's adventures at Avery Adventures or laugh at her lack of social media savvy on Facebook and Twitter.

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