Do you say any of these things to your child?
- You are a genius!
- What a great job!
- You’re so smart, I bet you’re gonna be a doctor!
- Wow, you’re the next Rembrandt (or put another famous person’s name in)
- You’re the best xxxxxxx I’ve ever seen!
An Impossible Standard
People said those things to me during my school years. Everyone from my parents to my teachers to my neighbors made those types of statements about me. I enjoyed being thought of as smart and talented. However, I was terrified that someone would discover that I was not nearly as wonderful as they all thought I was. How can a kid live up to the expectation of being a genius? Such an impossible standard may tempt a young child to lie and cheat in order to protect her status. This was certainly true for me and demonstrates the negative effects of praise. However, I had a very good short-term memory instead. I remembered the answers just long enough to get a stellar grade. Then, I breathed a sigh of relief not just because I did well, but because I kept my secret a little longer. No one could know that I was a fake. I wished I could just be normal and still get the same smiles and pats on the back.
Good Intentions Can Have the Wrong Effect
They meant well. They were expressing their praise for good marks. But, in a child’s literal, highly sensory mind, the praise became pronouncements. These pronouncements twisted themselves into goals and expectations that I couldn’t—and didn’t want to—live up to. Instead of being encouraging, those words became a prison.
They also sowed seeds of pride in my heart. I came to expect people to say great things about me, even if I didn’t really deserve it. I resented it when other kids earned awards that I didn’t. All that praise didn’t have the intended effect. Instead, it fed a sin habit that grew into full-blown self-worship by the time I graduated college.
Thank the Lord Jesus for the work He later did to teach me humility!
An Alternative to “You’re a genius!”
It is not a bad thing to want to encourage our kids or acknowledge a job well done. The problem is how we do it. Making sweeping statements like, “You’re the best artist I’ve ever met!” is neither helpful nor honest. Instead, it promotes the negative effects of praise. If we want to praise our kids, let’s make specific honest statements like:
- I like how you used lots of colors in your painting.
- You worked hard on your model. It looks just like the picture.
- You didn’t give up and you solved the problem!
- You used a lot of adjectives in your story and it helped me feel like I was really there.
- I learned some new facts from your history project. You included little known details that show how passionate you are about it.
Do you see the difference?
Before issuing sweeping, vague statements, let’s really study our children’s accomplishments and think about what makes them great. That way, they know precisely what they did well and the praise is tied to effort, not to them. We don’t want to become a stumbling block that leads our children into pride and self-righteousness. Don’t let your good intentions imprison your child.
If you want to know more about this, please visit Alfie Kohn’s website. He has written several books related to this topic and regularly teaches on it.
I recently posted about a related topic—giving prizes to kids—and I specifically talked about Bible verses. However, the reasons I gave for not awarding prizes could apply to other areas as well. Check it out HERE.
For more about motivating teens, click HERE.