By: Dr. Lucie Pentz
I can remember it as vividly as if it were yesterday even though it was nearly twenty-five years ago. I was in High School babysitting for an American family when I overheard the American mom say, “Honey, I am so proud of you. Great job!” praising her young son. I remember thinking to myself how strange it was to hear such (in my mind) exaggerated praise for some routine kid behavior. I paused for a moment realizing how odd this praise sounded to my ear. Then the curtain opened to the endless inner dialog. Wait a minute. My parents never praised me like that? Does it mean they were not good parents? Did they not love me? Is this parenting behavior normal? Is this really strange? Why is she talking in such a high pitched voice? I managed to calm down and proceeded to walk down memory lane, recalling all the parental behaviors that showed me that indeed my parents loved me. I lived in a culture where the implicit mantra was “talk is cheap,” but as I have become more acculturated, I must admit to having picked up a some of the more postmodern and admittedly hyperbolic buzzwords like fantastic, fabulous and epic and have embraced the land of great job, terrific work, and what an amazing accomplishment. So, why am I experiencing such a conflicted relationship with praise?
Let’s be honest–praise is often not about the object of our praise, but rather more about us. Praising our children makes us feel like we are good parents, nurturing and caring. Lack of praise is almost equated to emotional neglect. Quick “great job” does not require much mental energy. We can quickly throw a speedy superlative without spending much time inwardly deliberating. We become praise junkies.
So what is the difference between praise and encouragement? Frequently thoughtless praise is like driving through McDonald’s–picking up a quick burger, some fries and a milkshake. It quickly and mindlessly takes care of the hunger in exchange for a stuffed tummy and a food coma. Quick praise can leave our children with inflated heads or egos, but with no real emotional nutrition. Encouragement, on the other hand, is like concocting a gourmet meal–it takes time, effort, and quality ingredients. Besides, it requires some thinking too. But the reward of that effort is that your child’s spirit will be nourished.