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How Not to Talk to Your Kids

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That sold me. I’d thought “praise junkie” was just an expression—but suddenly, it seemed as if I could be setting up my son’s brain for an actual chemical need for constant reward.

What would it mean, to give up praising our children so often? Well, if I am one example, there are stages of withdrawal, each of them subtle. In the first stage, I fell off the wagon around other parents when they were busy praising their kids. I didn’t want Luke to feel left out. I felt like a former alcoholic who continues to drink socially. I became a Social Praiser.

Then I tried to use the specific-type praise that Dweck recommends. I praised Luke, but I attempted to praise his “process.” This was easier said than done. What are the processes that go on in a 5-year-old’s mind? In my impression, 80 percent of his brain processes lengthy scenarios for his action figures.

But every night he has math homework and is supposed to read a phonics book aloud. Each takes about five minutes if he concentrates, but he’s easily distracted. So I praised him for concentrating without asking to take a break. If he listened to instructions carefully, I praised him for that. After soccer games, I praised him for looking to pass, rather than just saying, “You played great.” And if he worked hard to get to the ball, I praised the effort he applied.

Just as the research promised, this focused praise helped him see strategies he could apply the next day. It was remarkable how noticeably effective this new form of praise was.

Truth be told, while my son was getting along fine under the new praise regime, it was I who was suffering. It turns out that I was the real praise junkie in the family. Praising him for just a particular skill or task felt like I left other parts of him ignored and unappreciated. I recognized that praising him with the universal “You’re great—I’m proud of you” was a way I expressed unconditional love.

Offering praise has become a sort of panacea for the anxieties of modern parenting. Out of our children’s lives from breakfast to dinner, we turn it up a notch when we get home. In those few hours together, we want them to hear the things we can’t say during the day—We are in your corner, we are here for you, we believe in you.

In a similar way, we put our children in high-pressure environments, seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use the constant praise to soften the intensity of those environments. We expect so much of them, but we hide our expectations behind constant glowing praise. The duplicity became glaring to me.

Eventually, in my final stage of praise withdrawal, I realized that not telling my son he was smart meant I was leaving it up to him to make his own conclusion about his intelligence. Jumping in with praise is like jumping in too soon with the answer to a homework problem—it robs him of the chance to make the deduction himself.

But what if he makes the wrong conclusion?

Can I really leave this up to him, at his age?

I’m still an anxious parent. This morning, I tested him on the way to school: “What happens to your brain, again, when it gets to think about something hard?”

“It gets bigger, like a muscle,” he responded, having aced this one before.

Additional reporting by Ashley Merryman


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