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Praise Junkies

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Jennifer Ginsberg: What's up with all the praise, parents?

You see, I grew up in the 70s and 80s, where an accomplishment was ... well, an actual accomplishment. Kids had to try out for choir, and not everyone made the Drill Team. Along the way, I had the opportunity to learn important life lessons, like how to deal with rejection. I also got to feel intrinsic joy and pride as I set about my daily tasks, without needing applause and a standing ovation from my folks.

family standing on a pedestal

Now, everyone who tries out for a sport has to get on the team. God forbid someone should feel rejected for even a moment! Parents further supplement this coddling by providing their children with a steady stream of inflated encouragement.

And what's up with fetishizing your child's every move with all the photo ops? Whenever I take my kids to the park, I see parents interfering with their unstructured play time by constantly trying to get their child to pose for pictures. Worse yet, they follow their kid around the park with a video camera, like they are filming a documentary on a fascinating and rare topic. Why is there so much hyperbolic exuberance over normal behavior, like going down the slide or across the monkey bars? If I hear one more, "Good job!" when a kid does a regular kid thing, I am going to unceremoniously barf in the sandbox.

It seems as if the parents of my generation are projecting their narcissistic wounds over their past feelings of disappointment onto their children. Their attempt to remediate these feelings is evidenced by their enthusiastic over-reaction when their child performs the simplest of tasks.

Today when I dropped Shane off at his Tiger Tots karate class, most of the parents of the other children were poised outside of the dojo, with their cameras and video devices in hand. You would have thought that Brad and Angie were making a surprise appearance as guest teachers for the day! Bear in mind, this was just your average class, not even one of those horrible tournaments where every kid wins a trophy.

As the kids lined up to enter the room, Shane noticed all the other parents excitedly gathered around, as if they were about to witness the Millennial Solar Eclipse. "Mommy," he said, "please don't leave and go for a run. Stay and watch me today!"

Busted! Bad parent alert. I lowered my head in shame as I felt the other parents' judgmental glances. There was no denying my agenda -- I had my workout clothes on and my iPod was all set to go. You see, I am one of those disgraceful parents that doesn't have an orgasm when I watch my son do an X-block. One of the main reasons I chose this class for Shane is it affords me the rare opportunity to both drop him off for an activity he enjoys and get a break for myself.

I faced the jury of other parents who had already decided I was guilty of the egregious crime of not wanting to watch a bunch of preschoolers reenact "Kung Fu Panda." I offered my plea: "I need to get some exercise now. This is the time for both of us to take care of our bodies." The concept of "mommy time" is not a new one to Shane, so while he probably felt some disappointment, he tolerated it well.

As I ran around the golf course, I wondered how all this unwarranted praise and attention is impacting our children. Some of my happiest memories as a child occurred when I had the opportunity for spontaneous and unsupervised play in my community with my friends.

Kick-the-can and ding-dong-ditch on hot summer nights. Practicing backflips with my brother for hours in our community pool. Making up a fully choreographed dance to "What a Feeling" from "Flashdance" with my best friend in her bedroom. No parental scrutiny, no video cameras capturing our every move, no attempts to get me to smile and pose for a picture. Just the pure pleasure of unstructured play, without the expectation and interference of parental approval.

I also remember the disappointments. Not getting the coveted lead role in the school play. Not making the volleyball team the first time I tried out. Not winning a trophy at the gymnastics tournament. While these seeming "failures" were painful to cope with at the time, I had the opportunity to grow through them, and ultimately learn to get tougher.

Thank you Mom and Dad for allowing me both my small and large triumphs, and teaching me the difference between normalcy and achievement. Thank you even more for allowing me to stumble and feel the consequences of my fall, for it was those experiences that provided me with the opportunity for character development.

I rest my case.

next: Make a Break for It: How to Get Your Run On
9 comments so far | Post a comment now
Queen Bee June 5, 2009, 9:06 AM

I agree with this article. I think kids today are growing up with a sense of entitlement and their work ethic sucks. Disappointment gives people drive to work harder and improve themselves, especially if you are passionate about something. I remember the feeling of losing a spot in our student government. I was so embarrassed and upset for losing that I ditched the rest of the school day and cried in my bedroom. But you know what, life goes on. I instead joined Drama and placed in individual competition (adding to our school’s 1st place state win!). Had I been in student government I would have never had time for Drama. Lemonade from lemons I tell ya. What opportunities and learning experiences are we letting our children miss out on? Is it okay to tell our children that being mediocre at something is great? Do we not want our kids to improve themselves, find out their passions, and reach their dreams? I think that “Praise Parenting” might rob them of their drive, and their sense of TRUE accomplishment.

v June 5, 2009, 10:28 AM

I love this article. I have a 6 year old and it really upset me when the soccer league told me they didn’t keep score- that way nobody gets hurt feelings. My thoughts were: if nobody wins and nobody loses why even play? How do you learn to compete and take regection in the real world if when you are a child you never even lose a soccer game!

Amy June 5, 2009, 10:30 AM

I agree but there is a difference between overly praising a child and not staying to watch your child do something that makes them happy or feel special and important. I think you sucked for not staying and watching that one time. Other than that I agree, I hate that kids and young adults have such a sense of entitlement but I think you are going to the extreme there is nothing wrong with praising your child for small victories, it gives them confidence to face and conquer larger victories and let’s them know that what’s important to them is important to you. There is a happy medium here.

dean June 5, 2009, 11:20 AM

We have a soccer league here and they do not keep score so everyone is a winner. Barf. What fun is that? And what is with parents taking all of those pictures? I agree you need some memories, but these guys look like they are filming a t.v. series.

Sue June 5, 2009, 11:47 AM

This is not as “new” as some might think. My daughter is 22 and this crap was going on when SHE was a child. She and her classmates were given stickers just for showing up to school each day. Nearly every Friday was Popcorn & Video day. There was a special activity every single month for students who managed to go an entire month without “getting a card turned”. ????? Parents had bouquets of flowers & balloons sent to their kids AT SCHOOL on their birthdays. And so much more I don’t have space to write about. Personally, I felt it was all pointless and stupid and totally over indulgent.

Marc J. Miller June 5, 2009, 12:10 PM

Now hold on here… encouragement builds self-esteem, builds a relationship with the parents that, “I will always be proud of you,” and “I will always love you.” A very small thing to a parent can be a very big thing for a child, and I think we all have stories about things we worked hard to accomplish that our parents didn’t appreciate or even were critical of.

My 2-year-old receives much praise throughout every day, and as a result is the most self-confident girl in her play group while her peers look at their parents with eyes that constantly ask, “is this okay?”

One point I do agree with: As the child gets older, the things that receive praise should require an increasing amount of effort, challenging the child to do more to win that praise. As we praise the child for being more independent, they become self-fueling, and *know* they’re doing the right things without remarks from the parents.

Bess June 5, 2009, 6:08 PM

Moderation is key.

Heather June 6, 2009, 12:02 AM

Learning to get tougher - it is a great skill, over-praise and over-protection not such good preparation for the real world. Thanks for the reminder.
—Heather R.

Melissa June 8, 2009, 12:21 AM

I say.. well, Marc said it best.

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