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In Praise of Not Praising A Child

Is there such a thing as too much validation? Too much praising a child? I am starting to think this is the case, as my daughters often seem to crave acknowledge that they’ve done “a good job.”  Whether it’s a scooter ride, or one of their hastily colored works of art, my daughters are always clamoring for approval. 

I’ve been thinking about what that means. On the one hand, as parents, we are demigods to our children, up to about the age of 9. Until then, we have an outsized influence on their lives and our approval serves a huge confidence-building function.

But what happens now that my daughter is approaching that cutoff? Does validation beyond a point foster overconfidence? I was thinking about this as we walked to the car the other day. My daughter, a propos to nothing in particular, began to clumsily pirouette like a ballerina. She then brashly declared, “Look, Dad! I’m really good at ballet!”

Now normally, the sanest parental reaction is to say nothing at all, or to off-handedly agree, “Sure, yes, you are.” But for some reason, I replied, “No. No, you are not good at ballet.”

I felt immediately sheepish and peevish. Was I being a lousy parent by needlessly pushing my daughter down? Was this the kind of snarky comeback that could make her less confident? What kind of person thinks twice about praising a child? And why was it so ridiculously hot? It should not be 33C in June!

The confidence of our daughters is important. They confront a male-dominated world where their worth is constantly belittled and undercut. What does it say when their father is not supportive?

But it just felt wrong to say my daughter did something well, when she didn’t.

The context here is important. We were walking in the parking lot after lunch, and my daughter was goofing around; we weren’t critiquing her performance after a ballet recital, when she had given her all. I think it’s okay to withhold praise when we can clearly see that children are not putting in any particular effort. And this is especially important when children themselves know they are not putting in the effort.

So, I followed my curt remark quickly: “But if you want to learn how to be a ballerina, you have to practice and take classes, and we’d be glad to sign you up.”

Praising a child is not the same thing as encouraging her. We live in an overpraised and coddled society, where we aim to insulate our children from disappointment, loss, and any suggestion that may bruise their egos. But rather than raising confident and stable children, this type of protection means we are raising delicate eggshells who don’t experience enough adversity.

Read more about praise on The Swaddle.

The world is a competitive place in almost every field or vocation. And life is always full of disappointments and obstacles. We often find that our ambition may not match our capability, and to meet these challenges we need to have experienced a sense of loss and challenge during the early years of life. And we need to have received encouragement, at that time, to find a way forward.

As much as my daughters need the self-confidence to withstand a world stacked against them, they also need self-motivation and grit to continue in the face of failure. They will never find this if they only hear how good they already are at everything.

So, when my daughters, particularly my older one, who is more aware of her individual effort, don’t really do something well, I take the daring position that I should tell them so, then help them identify a way they can improve. I think this is the only way to challenge our children to push themselves and grow.

Praise should be earned. Encouragement should be free. And it really should be cooler at this time of year.

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