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Parenting: Childhood

Are We Dishonest in Our Praise?

At a recent conference, a kind grandmother who was also a public school teacher asked my thoughts about overpraising.

When I asked what she meant she explained that she had noticed parents praising every little thing their child did. In a desire to be positive, encouraging, and perhaps not hurt their esteem, they were praising poor work. And she felt the children could sense their dishonesty. It was affecting her classroom.

After we talked more, I had to admit that I agreed with her. Overpraising starts with a wrong view of my child as fragile and breakable who must be protected from every evil. It makes praise cheap and contributes to the sin of people-pleasing.

As a proper way to think, I suggested several truths:

1. Biblical communication involves both praise and correction. There is a time to praise and time to correct.

2. We want our homes to be filled with encouragement. One practical way we tried to do this was using the red plate to encourage one particular child at a meal. We want our children to know that we are on their side 100%.

3. How we praise will flow from our functional goals for our child. What this grandmother sensed was that the children had not earned the praise and they knew it. If achievement is highest in our hearts, that is what we will praise for. Rather, it is our children’s character that should be uppermost in our minds. Jesus praised the servants who produced different results with their talents. But both received a “Well done good and faithful servant.” That’s praise of character. How much better to notice and call out God’s work in our children.

4. One reason God gives us individual children is so that we can individually evaluate what they are doing. We want to give lots of praise but not so much that they are dependent on it. What is praiseworthy for a three year-old is correctable in a five year-old. Discipleship is a life-on-life endeavor that requires discernment where the pupil is.

5. We have all had coaches who demanded a lot out of us and, if we knew they loved us, we were thankful for it. My own mother was a demanding high school English teacher and has had many students say to her that her class was their favorite. In her classroom there were high demands and high affection.

6. All of, including our children, are tempted to laziness. Demanding more is an indication that we respect their ability and are savvy enough to know they don’t always give us their best work. We love them too much to let them slide by with half-hearted work.

7. We can correct with affection and a smile. Correction does not have to be done with a scowl, only with firmness. We should be able to say regularly and affectionately, “I don’t think this is your best work. You can do better.”

8. The problem with this coddling of our child is that it does not create character qualities like resilience, perseverance, and grit. In fact, studies show that the greatest happiness comes not from mere achievement but from overcoming obstacles to get to that achievement. Dr. Angela Duckworth, in her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, argues that what makes individuals successful is not talent but tenacity – or what she calls grit.

9. If we overpraise we are giving into a lie of our age – The Lie of Fragility. The authors of The Coddling of the American Mind would agree with Duckworth and argue this new generation is being ruined by three untruths:

  • The Untruth of Fragility (What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker)
  • The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning (Always trust your feelings)
  • The Untruth of Us vs Them (Life is a battle between good people and evil people).

Final Thoughts

Children thrive on praise. Encouragement and recognition of God at work in our children will strengthen them. The English word of encourage carries the idea of inserting courage. Our homes should be joyful and bright places.

Having said that, in this increasingly anti-Christian world, we are going to need to raise children with resilience. God does not hold back trials from us. Out of love, He corrects us. When we are dishonestly praising we miss an opportunity to develop perseverance and resilience in our children.