Why Too Much Praise Is Bad: Turning Our Kids Into Praise Junkies

When I taught preschool, Mrs. Meagan was the most popular teacher of us all...among the parents, that is. Moms and dads worshiped her like a deity, putting 100% of their faith in her, utterly blind to how much harm she was doing. As her students entered the classroom each morning, she laid on the compliments thick as wallpaper paste: "Oh, Peyton, your braids look  SOOOO cute! Jackson, those boots are SOOOO awesome! OMG, Natalie, you look SOOOO adorable in that dress!" 

While the youngsters reacted timidly, not knowing what to make of her over-exuberance, their parents got thrilled beyond belief. A compliment for their child was a compliment for them. This ritual continued every day as innocent, unsuspecting kids got turned into Praise Junkies. It occurred with the full support of moms and dads, who ate it up like a dog devouring a box of chocolates -- not knowing the deleterious long-range consequences.

                                               What Is a Praise Junkie?

Teachers of young children like me see our fair share of kids who are Praise Junkies and feel tremendous compassion for them. They're often unhappy and easily frustrated because they don't find joy from within themselves.  It comes from the appraisal of others, usually parents and teachers. Since happiness is out of their control, they often feel hopeless and sad.

The term Praise Junkie refers to kids who need a constant flow of compliments in order to feel good about themselves. If you've ever spent time at a playground, you've probably seen that kid who's always calling over to her mom, dad, or nanny: "Look at me! Look at me! See how I'm swinging on the bars! Watch me balance on the fence! See how fast I go down the slide!" While other children are busy enjoying themselves -- making friends, using their imaginations, learning new skills -- the Praise Junkie is only focused on getting positive feedback from an adult. She gets no pleasure out of playing for its own sake. Her caregivers get annoyed because she craves so much attention. Yet, they rarely acknowledge their role in creating the situation.

The Praise Junkie at School

The Praise Junkie at school is a needy creature. She's the one who paints at the easel and then immediately asks the teacher, "Do you like my painting?" She's the one who's perpetually unsure of herself, always asking: "Did I do it right?" and "Is this okay?" She's the one who falls apart if her project doesn't look as good as her classmate's. She often doesn't have friends because adult approval is what she craves, not peer acceptance. 

Fortunately, most experienced educators know how to handle Praise Junkies. Unlike my co-worker, Mrs. Meagan, most teachers know too much praise leads to dependence. They know it's especially harmful when it focuses on a child's appearance, intelligence, and possessions. According to a recent study conducted at Columbia University, this is what adults need to keep in mind:
  • Children should get praised for effort and hard work, not outcomes. If a youngster is struggling with a math problem or a writing assignment, it's good to say: "Wow! I know that's hard for you, but you keep plugging along." That's much more powerful than seeing your child's "A" on her report card and remarking, "You're so smart!"
  • Children who are praised for physical attractiveness, intelligence, and possessions are less able to deal with challenges later in life. They give up easily. Those praised for effort show more perseverance and this is key to their continued success.
  • Children should get praised for trying, especially when they fail. They need to know failure is a big part of life and is inevitable.
  • Children should get praised for the process, not the end product. When a child is painting a picture, the adult should comment, "I like how you're experimenting with the greens and blues to create an ocean." This is far more helpful than seeing the finished painting and proclaiming, "Oh, that's so pretty!"

Why Parents Let Their Children

Become Praise Junkies

As an experienced teacher, I must confess that I got defeated by the adoring fans of Mrs. Meagan. I wondered why parents didn't object to her turning their kids into Praise Junkies, but I knew deep down it was just human nature. Moms and dads love to hear positive comments about their youngsters even if it's superficial stuff about their clothes or hair. They just eat it up. It takes a strong and  knowledgeable parent to stand up and say "too much!" I'm just hoping more moms and dads will find the strength to do what's right for their kids.

The author, Nancy Carlsson-Paige (Matt Damon's mom), is a professor and champion of young children. She's highly critical of today's reforms in early childhood education -- standardized testing, academic rigor, and the decline of play.

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