What Is a Praise Junkie and How to Avoid Turning Your Child Into One?

As a former kindergarten teacher, I was privy to how teachers talk about their students – not the politically correct stuff they say to parents but the real lowdown. For example, in the faculty lounge, a teacher may call a student “a pain in the butt,” “naughty,” “a lost cause” or “most likely to send me to the funny farm.” But, sitting in front of mom and dad at conference time, she chooses her words oh-so-carefully. She says he's “full of energy” and “keeps me on my toes” and “adds spice to the day.” But, for all the difficult personalities a teacher encounters, the praise junkie is one of the most trying.

Those of you who are unenlightened may be wondering: “What the heck is a praise junkie?” Let me give you the low-down as someone who's worked with them in both kindergarten and preschool. In my opinion, this is an especially sad time to encounter praise junkies because they already need so much reassurance at such a tender age. It's heartbreaking.

A praise junkie is a little girl who stands at the easel and asks, “Do you like my painting?” Her opinion of what she created means little or nothing. She craves what others have to say, especially a teacher or other adult.

A praise junkie is a boy at the playground who yells over to Dad constantly: “Look at me! Look at me! I'm going down the slide. I'm balancing on the wall. I'm pumping on the swings.” He's content as long as Dad gives him his full attention, lavishing him with positive comments: “Wow, that's great, son. You're doing a terrific job. That's amazing!” But, as soon as Dad goes back to reading his book, the boy loses interest. He doesn't like playing for playing's sake. He doesn't enjoy making new friends. He's addicted to Dad's approval.

As you can imagine, a praise junkie is draining. With so many students in her classroom, a teacher can't (and shouldn't) give this youngster the praise she's used to getting from Mom and Dad. This frustrates the praise junkie and makes her unhappy. She often doesn't get along well with peers, is very needy, and only covets the teacher's attention.

 In today's society, where every kid gets a trophy, we're rearing a generation of praise junkies who expect accolades even when they're not earned.

In today's society, where we give each kid a trophy so nobody gets hurt feelings, praise junkies are on the rise. When I started teaching kindergarten 25 years ago, there wasn't such a label because it wasn't needed. About 15 years ago, I'd have a praise junkie in my classroom from time to time but certainly not every year. In my final years of teaching, I"d typically have 2-3 in my class and it was a real challenge.

So what can parents do to avoid turning their child into a praise junkie​? Here are some suggestions:
  • Praise sparingly and strategically. There are far too many parents today who believe you can't praise your children enough. Wrong! A little praise goes a long way, and it means more to children when it's not overused. Beware of giving too many compliments for how a child looks: her beauty, her clothes, her hair, her skin. Focus instead on what she does: “I saw how you helped your little sister pick up her room...I saw how you spent a long time making that robot with the Legos.”
  • Emphasize effort, not results. In preschool and kindergarten, some kids like to whip out a painting or drawing and then expect high praise for little time and effort. They know deep-down it isn't deserved (hey, kids aren't stupid). They're just checking to see if an adult will give them kudos no matter what. Sadly, too often grownups do just that. 

  • Comment on your child's hard work and persistence: “You really spent a long time at the easel, experimenting with different colors...You kept at it until you were able to do a somersault...You weren't afraid to have that tower of blocks collapse and start all over.”

  • Encourage perseverance. Studies show that grit is more important to a child's future success in life than intelligence and talent. The kid who's encouraged to try and risk failure gets a big advantage. The child who's afraid to make mistakes is destined for frustration.
  • Comment on behaviors but don't make judgments. Too many parents feel it's their duty to label everything: “That's pretty. That's nice. That's impressive. That's amazing.” Enough already! It's better to simply state what the child has done without judgement: “I see you painted a picture today...I saw you playing with your friends in the sandbox...I saw you putting away your toys when you were done.”
  • Find teachers who don't create praise junkies. While it may seem I'm suggesting only parents make praise junkies, I know that's not the case. As a preschool teacher, I worked with several teachers who were guilty of pouring it on way too thick. As soon as the children walked in the door, these teachers would comment: “You look so cute in your pigtails...I think you look like a princess in that dress...You look so incredibly handsome in those cowboy boots.” Ugh, can it get any more superficial than that! Sadly, too many uninformed parents see this kind of attention as positive, not appreciating the harm it causes.

If you have a daughter, this is a book you must read. Find out how today's girlie-girl culture is negatively impacting your daughter in ways you never considered. This is an important book as our girls become sexualized at younger and younger ages. I was thoroughly captivated by it even though I have sons!

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