Empty Praise

cropped-annajulie1.jpgWe’ve all heard people say, “I want to give my children all of the things I never had growing up.” While this is a normal feeling, it’s not always the best parenting behavior. My parents raised me with lavish praise at every opportunity. Their intention was noble, and I believe they did this because they felt a lack of praise in their childhood. Therefore, when they had the opportunity to raise a child, most likely they wanted to give me what they felt they did not have growing up.

Unfortunately, their endless praise of me backfired, and I wound up feeling extremely insecure in spite of all the positive strokes. This was always so very confusing to me. How could I feel insecure when my parents were so supportive of me? After many months working with a therapist, and my involvement with other personal growth programs, I became stronger. I learned to value myself for things I can control – like kindness, empathy, listening skills, hard work, etc. Before my recovery work, the insecurity I felt was perplexing. I soon began studying something called “empty praise.”

By praising a child for something they have no control over — such as appearance or natural ability — parents inadvertently create praise “junkies.” These children grow up with very little internal sense of their strength and abilities. Very often, these same children have been protected from failure and have not only been spared the experience of failure, but have also been spared the strength and self-reliance that comes from trying and failing and then trying again. Below is an excerpt from Amy McCready’s article on Huffington Post, “Mistakes Too Many Parents Make When They Praise Their Kids.” McCready eloquently articulates the “empty praise” scenario.


Praise, like sugar, can be tricky — and sometimes it shows up even where we don’t intend. For instance, when we label or compare our kids, we’re praising them, or worse, belittling them, often without realizing it. By claiming an “athletic one” or our “funny one” or the “shy one,” we highlight abilities (or inabilities) through comparison, and package all of our children into neat little boxes. Even more subtle is the designation of a go-to kid. We all have one — it’s the child we trust to carry the full salad bowl to the table. He’s the one we “go-to” when we want something done quickly and without a fuss. Relying on the go-to kid is a type of praise that can be just as damaging as its overt counterpart — not only because kids pick up on everything (even the fact that Javier always gets the cool jobs), but also because with it, we unknowingly tell kids that they are their label and can’t control who they are or what they do. Ouch!

The antidote: Even if you know Molly could have a career in modeling, or Charlie would rather mail himself to Siberia than speak in front of an audience, resist the urge to label Molly as “the pretty one” and compare Charlie as “my shy kid.” While you’re handing out family tasks, divvy up age-appropriate jobs equally so everyone gets a chance to drop (or successfully transport) the salad bowl, using plastic if you’re truly concerned. And who knows? Maybe with encouragement Charlie will someday find himself on a stage addressing thousands, without even having to picture them all in their underwear.


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