Is Our Country’s Biggest Problem Really That We Praise Our Kids Too Much?
Saying ‘good job’ on the playground will NOT turn your toddler into Ted Bundy.
Apparently, this country is suffering from a serious problem right now: We’re being far too nice to our children.
Here are some headlines from the last 12 months:
“The problem with praising your kids TOO much” — Psych Central, February 2019
“Why Telling Your Children They Are Smart Could Turn Them Into Cheaters” — Forbes, November, 2018
“When saying ‘Good Job’ is a bad thing” — Montessori Musings, October 2018
“Why I’ll never cheer for my son” — The Week, June 2018
“Stop Praising Kids with ‘Good Job!’ How ineffectively praising kids can hurt more than help” — From a popular kids’ sports blog, May 2018
“Are our children overpraised?” — Child Mind Institute, May 2018
These follow headlines from a few years earlier such as “Do Parents Nurture Narcissists By Pouring On The Praise?” from NPR, “How over-praised children turn into arrogant adults,” from the UK Daily Mail, “Praising kids: ‘Good job!’ Doesn’t cut it anymore” from Psychology Today, and “Is praising your children good or bad for them?” from the BBC.
The spate of stories started, it seems, with a Dutch study of 565 kids ages 7–11, published in 2015, that concluded that, according to Scientific American, “children of excessively praising parents were more likely to score high on narcissistic qualities but not on self-esteem.”
The upshot, the stories say, is that while praising specific accomplishments may help nurture a child’s self-esteem, telling him he’s special or giving vague or undeserved praise may simply inflate his ego.
But it’s unclear how often parents really go overboard, and until what age the tone of the praise matters more than the words. Having seen quite a number of anti-“Good job!” posts on parenting blogs in just the last year or two, I wonder if people are taking these stories too much to heart.
“I recently sat at a Little League game and heard parents yell ‘Good job,’ when a little boy hit a home run and ‘Good job’ when another little boy struck out,” complained a sportscaster and mom on a kids’ sports blog last year.
Recently, I heard a conversation in which a woman complained that a mom on the playground said “Good job!” to her toddler just because he climbed up the slide.
I think this needs to be said: Talking to your toddler in an encouraging tone is not going to turn him into Donald Trump Jr. and inspire him to go out and hunt elephants. And telling your kid he’s smart isn’t going to turn him into Ted Bundy or even Al Bundy (unless he’s already Ted Bundy).
We have to remember that the rest of the world is going to barrage our children with enough rotten, cruel, and belittling comments and rejections to chop his ego down to size. Reassuring him at home may at least provide him with the armor to deal with years of school bullies, social rejection, and people calling him “loser” and “noob” as he plays Fortnite.
The rest of the world will barrage our children with enough insults to chop his ego down to size.
A side effect of this modern fear of “overpraising” seems to be an aversion to calling children “smart” and putting them in gifted programs. The purpose of such programs has always been to challenge kids who might otherwise wind up bored, and while perhaps the term “gifted” and the nebulous criteria should be altered from years ago, I don’t know anyone who wound up harmed by a gifted program (although many of them were a little kooky as it was). Last year, a writer for Bustle opined, “Most of my friends were in gifted programs at school or seen as high achievers, and we all have our own weird stories about how we fit in, stuck out, went bonkers trying to be perfect, and generally wondered why we hadn’t got a Nobel Prize by 25. (Maybe that one’s just me.)” On that last point, I’d say yes.
I don’t know anyone who was harmed by a gifted program (although many of them were a little kooky)
When I was in school, at the same time as my parents and a few teachers told me I was creative, my classmate Chris B. — with whom I attended school from third to seventh grade — told me that because of my overbite, I should get a job opening Coke bottles with my teeth. My eighth grade classmate Tom A. yelled “LIPS!” at me in the hallway every single time he saw me because (according to him) my lips were too big, and others caught onto the nickname and did the same. One girl called me “Two Bucks” because of my aforementioned overbite (she was my best friend). The point is, kids should feel reassured and praised at home, because the rest of the world will take care of that ego thing, except for the exceptionally wealthy, strong, and good-looking — and we all know that’s not most of us.
The only antidote for our adolescent self-loathing may be whatever passion or talent keeps a fire burning inside of us, and it’s too bad some children may not be lucky enough to have anyone in their lives to remind them of their good qualities. Sometimes it’s a special teacher who does that, but hopefully it’s family as well.
Meanwhile, child services can’t keep up with their cases…
But let’s get serious about a real problem affecting our children right now: Not a week goes by in which we don’t read a news story about a child who died from severe abuse or neglect, and in many of these stories, social services visited the residence but either did not or was not able to follow up properly. For every child who’s praised too much, how many are harmed or neglected because of an underfunded social services system (made worse, of course, by the resources that must be directed toward the fentanyl epidemic)? One shocking recent falling-through-the-cracks case was that of 4-year-old Maleah Davis in Texas, whose mother’s ex-fiance was arrested in connection with her disappearance in May. In June she was found dead in Arkansas. In the year before she disappeared, Maleah wound up in the hospital several times for mysterious head and brain injuries. “Child Protective Services removed Maleah and her brothers from the home Vence and Bowens shared in August after the girl suffered a head wound,” the AP reports, “but the children were returned in February, according to an agency spokeswoman.” The injuries — which required her to have part of her skull removed to relieve pressure — were explained away as “Maleah was hurt after falling from a chair.”
I wish children like Davis were only harmed by being praised too much.
“Child Protective Services removed Maleah and her brothers from the home in August after the girl suffered a head wound, but the children were returned in February.” — AP
I realize this isn’t a zero sum proposition (and I’m generally not a fan of people who act as if media can’t report on two disparate issues at once), and I’m aware we can both discuss well-off children who get praised too much as well as those who are physically harmed.
But I’ve seen far, far too much discussion centered on the perils of saying “good job” to young children and not nearly enough about those who are endangered. Maybe we should support political candidates who, instead of just talking about free college (for those who make it that far), will also talk about the children who struggle to get past fifth grade, and how to improve the child welfare and related social services systems. Also, instead of admiring politicians who “tell it like it is” by using bullying language, let’s elect those who understand that empty praise is preferable to cheap shots, and who set an example.
When we do that, I’ll say, “Good job!”