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Can you give a child too much praise? +Video

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My father thought praising a child would spoil them. I don’t agree, but if you do it too often, they will fear failing you.

My children are perfect. All four of them. Perfect and beautiful and clever. I bet yours are, too. Except, of course, they are not. In reality, my children and yours are likely to be reasonably average in terms of looks, behaviour, intelligence and charm. That’s why it is called average. Your belief in your child being special is more probably a biological imperative than an empirical fact.

A loved one, particularly a loved child, is edited as we observe them. Other people’s children are bratty; ours are spirited. Theirs are precocious; ours confident and self-assertive.

This is all natural and even touching when not taken too far. However, it is one thing feeding this propaganda to ourselves but feeding it to our children may be a little less desirable. We have the idea that – unlike my parents’ generation – we should build our children’s self-esteem as high as we can. Therefore, their random scribble is up there with Picasso, their C-minus is an unfortunate oversight on the part of the teacher, the fact that no one wants to be friends with them is because they are particularly clever or sensitive, the wart on their nose is a beauty spot.

Children see through this kind of thing very quickly and discount their parents’ compliments as a matter of course. As they grow up, they sense that the wider world judges them differently. This leads to a – hopefully gentle – cynicism about anything their parents tell them about their achievements. Perhaps that is OK – but I’m not sure it is good for them to have the currency of parental praise so devalued.

If parents were a little harsher sometimes, this could have two positive effects – first, when a compliment came, it would be more likely to be believed and, second, it would fit in rather more accurately with the picture of reality that the child is forming in their heads.

A lot of pressure is put on children who are told they are beautiful, special and perfect. Because then, where is there to go? Only downwards. They become hyperaware of their status in your eyes, and a danger must be that they fear failing you. To be overpraised by your parents is the counter side of being criticised all the time. Both can have negative consequences.

It is important to give your children the liberty to be flawed – to know that it’s OK to be imperfect, and that, in fact, we often love people for their flaws – perfect people (whom we can only imagine, as they do not exist) are easy to respect, but hard to love.

Now I am nearly 60, my main insight is that I am much less special than I once believed. This knowledge has actually been helpful in leading a more well-balanced life. I’d call it humility, if it weren’t very un-humble to attribute myself with the quality.

I certainly wouldn’t like to go back to attitudes that my parents, particularly my father, held, that to praise the child was to “spoil them” or make them bigheaded. However, the history of families is like the history of everything else – the story of overreactions. We praise our children to the skies, partly because we think it makes them feel good, but also because it makes us feel good. And perhaps it is more the latter than the former.

Having said all this, I am a terrible overpraiser, because I adore my children. I’m sure they have learned to take everything with a pinch of salt, but excessive love can be as big a burden as a shortage of it. My advice, at least to myself, is to ration not splurge. Then every compliment will count, rather than amounting to little more than a vaguely pleasing – but finally inauthentic – background Muzak, so persistent it isn’t even noticed.


Credit: theguardian.com
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