May 28, 2024
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Praising Our Children: Is There Such a Thing as Too Much?

A friend in our community approached me recently to suggest a topic for this column. He reflected on the common practice of giving children medals, awards and trophies regardless of how much effort they put forth or whether or not they perform well. A great example of this is in youth sports in which it’s common practice to award a trophy to every child. Even more so, in some leagues, every team makes it to the playoffs.

In sharing this observation, my friend expressed frustration and dismay at this practice and asked if I would discuss the topic here. Generally speaking, I agree with him. When talking about very young children, there is nothing wrong with rewarding them with trophies and awards of one kind or another regardless of how hard they try or whether or not their team performs the best. At a very young age, this approach is valuable in helping children develop healthy self-esteem, self-confidence and internal motivation.

At some point, however, rewarding everyone as if they all performed equally well and put forth equal effort becomes harmful. Children learn that they don’t have to put forth much effort because they’ll be rewarded regardless. Rather than develop the internal drive to do well and to succeed, they develop poor motivation and self-discipline.

With this approach, children’s self-esteem and self-confidence actually are harmed rather than helped. Self-confidence is the belief that I can accomplish something if I try hard enough. But, if I’m rewarded even when I don’t try hard and I don’t accomplish my goal, I learn that effort has nothing to do with anything. Instead of becoming confident in myself, I become confident that you’ll reward me. In the process, the reward loses meaning and I start to take accolades for granted.

Many years ago, while working as a psychotherapist at a community mental health agency, I treated a 40-something-year-old man who initially presented with strong feelings of inadequacy and depression. Over the course of his therapy with me we talked about his childhood relationship with his mother (not everything boils down to our childhood relationship with our parents, but sometimes there’s a connection). My client described her as a very loving and devoted mother who put all her effort into supporting her son as he participated in sports.

Sounds good, right? But, rather than feel supported and encouraged, my client’s self-confidence and self-esteem took a big hit and he came to resent his mother. Although just a youth, he was very aware that he wasn’t the best or the fastest and that he didn’t always try as hard as he could. So, when his mother always responded to his performances as though he were an all-star, my client felt it was inauthentic. Rather than be uplifted by her praise, the praise served as a reminder of what he hadn’t really achieved. Instead of feeling supported by his mother, he was turned off by her gushing praise and learned to distrust her support.

I don’t mean to suggest that all children who receive undeserved praise will grow to hate their mothers; of course this isn’t the case. My point is to stress that there are negative consequences to always responding to our children in positive overdrive; in other words, throwing a parade for them regardless of how hard they try or how well they actually do.

Children are smart and intuitive, and at a certain age they develop pretty good self-awareness. As was the case with my client, children know when they don’t try their hardest or when they don’t perform well. Pretending they perform better than they actually do rings hollow to their little ears.

Children need to be acknowledged for their actual effort and should be encouraged to reach their potential. This is authentic support and helps them build healthy self-esteem and a sense of self-efficacy. When rewarded for their effort and real accomplishments, and when provided with positive feedback when they fall short, children develop self-discipline and an internal drive to succeed.

Certainly I’m not advocating that we only focus on achievement and that the only thing that matters is reaching one’s goal. This also sends the wrong message to children. They grow up to believe their self-worth is defined by achievement. With this approach, children’s self-esteem grows to be brittle and fragile. It’s a house built on cards that comes crashing down when they fall short of 100 percent success. Instead, the task is to help children define success in a healthy, constructive manner.

According to this model, success is measured in effort as well as the end result. In other words, if children make a good effort, they’ve succeeded, regardless of whether or not they won the race or got an “A+” on the test. Additionally, this approach allows room for continued growth. If I receive verbal praise for good effort after finishing in 4th place and I don’t get a 1st-place trophy, I have motivation to try harder the next time because I want to win the trophy. If I receive a trophy regardless of how hard I try or whether or not I perform the best, what motivation do I have to try harder the next time? I already have the trophy.

Sometimes we’re so focused on building up our children that we fall into the trap of thinking that more is always better. It doesn’t occur to us that too much praise can be just as harmful as too little. However, when we adopt a more nuanced understanding of how children are affected by praise, we become more adept at providing it in the right way. With this approach, praise nurtures good emotional health, rather than derailing it.

Dr. Gur-Aryeh is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Saddle Brook, NJ. He works with a wide variety of clients seeking mental health treatment and specializes in mood disorders and addiction in particular. If you would like to contact him, you can do so at [email protected], at 201-406-9710 or through his website at www.shovalguraryehphd.com.

By Shoval Gur-Aryeh, PhD

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