A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

Praise and Self-Esteem in Parenting

Is it better to praise a child's achievement or effort?

A few years ago, I began hearing chatter about the theory that children shouldn't be over-praised, or praised too diffusely (e.g. hearing "Good job!" as a constant refrain to every tiny move they make) lest it damage their self-esteem. It began to percolate on the local parent list-serve I belonged to, and occasioned some lively discussion (though not as lively as the debate over the sexism of assuming that a lost blue hat belonged to a boy. Yes, sometimes this is crazytown). Frankly, I thought this criticism of praise was bunk, the kind of psychobabble-ish overthinking that ruins modern parenting. I grew up being told I was smart, and always felt it was a bulwark and source of strength for me, not a weakness. Like parents who strenuously avoid using the words "fat" and "thin," as if that could prevent their children from developing eating disorders, or those who believe they can raise children oblivious to the importance of appearances by never telling them they are cute, this self-censorship of a parent's natural inclination to cheerlead seemed both absurd and over-controlling.

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This summer I learned—once again—how wrong I was. We were playing tennis with our daughters; by "playing tennis," I mean throwing the ball so they could try to hit it—please don't picture us in crisp tennis whites, returning with elegant groundstrokes. My younger child, just six, was having predictable difficulties connecting racquet to ball. After only four or five failed attempts, she hurled her racquet down and pitched a gigantic tantrum, complete with tears and screaming about how she couldn't, how she'd never, never be able to do this. After half an hour of coaxing and damage control, during which I uncharacteristically maintained my own calm, I managed to get her back on track. But a nagging voice in the back of my mind suggested this might be the child afraid of failure because so much has come easily to her thus far.

Sure enough, after she'd calmed down and hit a couple of balls, she looked at me winningly and said, "Am I perfect now, Mommy? Am I perfect?" Ding! When I told her no, she wasn't, she was crestfallen. A few more hits later, she tried again: "But am I very good, Mommy?" I told her (somewhat self-consciously, but with a dawning sense of what was going on here) that she couldn't be very good yet, as she'd only just begun learning. Silence. Throw, hit. Throw, hit. Finally, a small voice: "Am I doing better?"

The bells all went off at once. Here was the child—a precocious reader, a compulsive organizer and rule-follower—for whom generalized praise was a trap rather than a reward. She was incapable of doing something she wasn't instantly good at. And when I saw it in her, I suddenly recognized this trait in myself too: my biggest failing, certainly as a student and perhaps more generally as well, was a fear of tackling what I knew I wouldn't be good at. My younger sister is exactly the opposite: whatever scared her most was exactly what she would force herself do, whether that was climbing mountains or becoming a surgeon. Conquering fear was her gig, while mine was all about busying myself with my talents and running from what scared me.

So before you reject—or embrace—the notion that "Good job!" will spoil your child forever, you may want to check in and see exactly which kind of kid you've got. Like so many parenting philosophies, it's only valid once you know your child (or yourself) well enough to see whether it applies. To all those parents who fear that praising their child's sand-box skills will ruin them for life, I say: Take a deep breath. Don't throw the theory away, but give it some time before you apply it. You may have that child who genuinely needs and thrives on praise or you may have the one who truly benefits from being singled out for effort rather than achievement. In either case, be judicious and don't do something that doesn't make sense simply because you read a study that says it's so. Because inevitably, three years from now, another study will prove the opposite to be true.

Special Holiday Meals Edition—What I cooked for Rosh Hashanah:

First night:

Second Night (all but Honey Cake from The Essential New York Times Cookbook):

 

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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