Sing Praise, but Softly

Note: This post might seem like just another parenting question, and in some ways I guess it is.  That said, input is not exclusive to parents.  If you are someone without children, I invite you to read and comment.  While you might not be a parent right now, you are a child to somebody, and so you have experience being parented.  That alone is qualification enough to have a worthwhile opinion about what I should do.

I’ve been thinking a lot about praise.  You see, my child (I call her L) is really pretty.  She is also our only child, and while I would like to think that my adoration of her is because she is All That, apparently I am devoted because she is my only focus.  (So happy to know I truly, truly am only as good as Pavlov’s dog.)  Given that she is exceptionally beautiful and our only child, my compliments are basically free-flowing, without restraint.

cakeI have heard a bit about a more constrained approach to praise, a movement started because, apparently, kids nowadays were so overpraised that they have unrealistic expectations about themselves and the world.  They expect, for example, just by showing up they need to be acknowledged.  What is considered baseline participation is elevated to effort.  Worse yet, they resent their parents for setting them up so poorly (alas, parents never get a break do they?).  I read this, which is an article about why overpraising is bad and how to praise in a way that works.  Most important is to hold back, don’t do it all of the time. for everything.

I want to say I think the article is a bunch of silly psycho babble but some of it made sense.  Given how hard we work to get L to persevere through frustration and to make positive choices rather than throw a tantrum, I can see how this doctor would say praising the effort over the result works.  I don’t have an issue with that.

I feel resistance, though, when I consider holding my tongue to compliments of her looks.  It might seem silly or petty, but when I look at my child, in certain moments, I am overcome with love.  I might say, “I love you,” and I might say, “You are so lovely.”  Sometimes I greet her with, “Hi, pretty.”  I will even hold her like a baby in my lap and softly say, “Look at that sweet face,” before giving her nose a little kiss.  We are an affectionate family and we don’t hold back on affection, ever.

Now I am having second thoughts about that.  I mean, who would have thought that doing the above meant I was practicing bad parenting?  I talk to my child like my mom and dad talked to me.  Yes, I can relate to the doctor’s report that children discount their parent’s compliments:

“I can’t tell you how many children and teenagers have noted to me that they are skeptical of their parents’ praise because, ‘It’s just my Mom saying I’m pretty. She has to say that because she’s my mother.'” – Ruth A. Peters, Don’t Turn Your Child Into A Praise Junkie.

This is how I felt when my mom complimented me, too.  Do I know that it is because she praised me too much or is it simply something kids go through with their parents?  I had an interesting situation with my mom that L won’t have with me: my mom was a model (locally, doing runway work and some photography) when I was young and into my teens.  Before puberty we had the same body but then I got boobs and hips.  I looked at my mom and thought that if she was a model then how she looked was the standard.  Once I deviated from the standard, I was no longer pretty.  I kept this secret, even from myself, until I was mature enough to deal with my insecurity.  This had nothing to do with my mother saying I was beautiful when I was little.  This was something she could never have controlled.

So, the question is: can I compliment L too much?  My husband and I talk about the context of being pretty, like we tell L that being pretty is not a way to introduce herself.  I also use Cinderella as an example of how being pretty on the outside isn’t enough – being a good person is what wins over the animals who eventually come to her aid.  However, I worry that she will focus on the beauty, or what if we don’t keep the compliments up for some reason and she thinks, “Am I no longer pretty?”  She wouldn’t ask us – it would be a conclusion she would draw on her own, like I did with my mother.  At the same time, I can’t see cutting back and not expressing myself.  I don’t want to remove one of the great pleasures of parenting – reveling in the beauty (in and out) of my child.

So tell me from your experience, whatever that experience is, can I compliment my child too much?  Or is expressing myself fully the right to path to take?

20 responses to “Sing Praise, but Softly

  1. If I look at it honestly, I would have to answer that it doesn’t really matter either way, and I think you would be best off letting go of the concern altogether. I say this because in the end, as a child, all that matters is that you know your parents really, really love you no matter what, and in your case, it’s obvious that you do. So if you feel the strong urge to express your love and adoration to your child, then by all means, do so. And if you don’t, then don’t. Either way, be confident that your child is very fortunate, and has exactly the love and praise that she needs.

    Cute picture, by the way.


  2. I don’t question praise – I am a hard-to-please mom, much of the time, so when I feel praise coming – I just go with it. It balances out the criticism (I hope.)

    Also, I praise lots of stuff. “Fantastic way to play with your brother” “Wow! You worked really hard on that!” “I really appreciate the table manners.” “You’re teacher called me about what a considerate child you are! I love that! Nothing is more important to me than how you treat others!”

    Empty praise – “You’re so smart!”- or unfiltered praise (every piece of artwork is NOT brilliant, nor did she work hard on all of it…) is what comes across as such. If you mean it, say it. If you are truly impressed, let her know as often as you feel it. That can’t be bad.

  3. I have 4 kids, 15, 13, 4 and 23 months. There are no hard and fast rules to parenting, and as many books as you can read, one will say one thing, and another book the complete opposite.

    For me, its more important to tell them everyday how wonderful I think they are, what great human beings they are, to tell them I love them and they can always come to me with a problem. I let them know I think they are making great choices, and I am proud of who they are.

    I dont often talk a lot about beauty, and being beautiful. I do say, you look great today, or to my only daughter, you look beautiful today, but beauty is subjective. What I find beautiful, others really may not. As parents we always think our kids is beautiful, other people may scratch their head and go “huh?” and not see it.

    Someone can be stunning to look at, and very ugly on the inside, that person will never be beautiful. For me as a parent, I like it when the kids focus on being wonderful human beings inside. Then their beauty will show.

    I hope these thoughts help. Just follow your heart, parenting is a tough job, just keep loving her the way that you do, and how can you go wrong?

  4. Great question. I think kids can be overpraised, but only if a parent doesn’t balance that with emphasis on how interior beauty/integrity and other moral values are just as important as the exterior beauty. I say keep assuring her she’s lovely, but also stress other values, like being responsible, etc. Especially as a student she’ll need to know how important study and learning are.

    I remember being a young child, maybe 8 or so. I asked my mother if I was pretty. Her response? “I’ve seen worse.” That’s scarred me for life. But, well, it’s mild compared to the other things my parents did to mess up my life. Can you imagine hearing that? That I’ve never forgotten it tells you how it affected me.

    I was never, ever praised. Never called precious or anything, never treated lovingly. Never hugged that I remember, never kissed. But I treat my own children lovingly. I didn’t want to be like my parents, in any way.

    Trust your parenting instincts. I always tell people who asking about parenting issues to listen to everyone, then pick and choose what’s most appropriate for that child. They’re all different. One size doesn’t fit all. Your instincts are the best because you’re closest to her. And don’t worry about perfection! None of us are perfect, and that’s another good model for her.

  5. I have an opinion on the pretty thing, and it is not from parenting experience necessarily, but from life experience. In my family, my sister was/is a near genius, and I was smart, but I was ‘the pretty one’ and she was ‘the smart one’. My sister is pretty. But I was blonde and bubbly and told by everyone as a kid, teen and young adult how pretty I was. I was not gorgeous or beautiful or movie-star like, and I didn’t really feel pretty for complex reasons, but I heard it all the time growing up. After Twister came out, I was stopped on the street all the time and told I looked like Helen Hunt by people who thought she was hot. It was weird.

    When I got into my late thirties and was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, I was put on steroids and in was pain all the time. It made it hard to be super active as I always had been, and I gained a lot of weight. Suddenly, no one ever noticed me anymore, and certainly, strangers no longer called me pretty. If the best thing you have going your entire life is being pretty and then you aren’t pretty anymore, what are you?

    I would recommend telling her she is pretty, but more often, I would tell her she is so smart, nice, kind, compassionate, strong, etc. Things that she can always be, regardless of what life throws at her.

    Hope this wasn’t too serious or negative, just my thoughts and experience. Also-what a lucky kid!

  6. Like another commentor I am a pretty tough mom so I don’t think I can over praise. But I do think that if you think everything they do is great, they have no motivation to work at things. And I think emphasizing on the outer beauty too much can cause multiple issues. For me praising outer beauty is a praise to God. My kids didn’t MAKE themselves cute, God did. And I don’t think we can praise HIM too much. But I do think we need to teach our kids that it doesn’t matter how pretty or cute they are on the outside if they aren’t beautiful on the inside. This is my focus as a parent.
    Hope this rambling makes sense.

  7. Childless in Seattle

    I have no kids, so who am I to say what impact parents’ praise has on a child developmentally. While I studied developmental psychology in college, I have absolutely no real-life experience, so I defer to you parents on that subject.

    I do, however, have a lot of friends and family members with kids, and, given you are the author of the brilliant blog — and concept — of “hangnail friendships,” I see a correlation.

    Parents, in my experience, praise their children. It’s just what they do. To those people without kids — that is to say, to me — it seems natural; I mean the parent brought the kid into the world, cared for the baby when he/she was helpless and small, taught he/she to walk, etc.

    But then the praise-fest starts. “Our little Jimmy is brilliant! He’s reading at a 4th-grade level while in diapers!” and “Susie is the most gifted child ever! Have you seen the way she plays on her xylophone?” and “Sweet little Karen is so insightful; she’s the most clever being I’ve ever encountered. She’s so caring with other children,” etc. ad nauseam.

    While the praise is most often followed up by a perfunctory, “I don’t know where she/he gets it from,” no one’s buying it.
    We, as the listener (particularly if we have no children) know exactly where the parent means to say the child gets it from. My take: parental praise is all about the parent. It’s the perfect opportunity for person to be a raging narcissist while appearing altruistic. I mean, hey, it’s all about the kid, right? Not.

    While I have no idea what happened with your hangnail relationships, I trust you’re not referring to me when you mention them. I base this upon the facts that, 1) We’re still friends, and 2) When we’re together I praise “L” more than you do. As a general rule, however, I do find myself not particularly wanting to be around friends with children and listen to them praise the child (aka themselves) all day long. Sound nasty? Yep. The truth sometimes is.

    I’ll stick to dogs, thank you.
    Don’t get me wrong; I love my dogs. But my comments to my friends about them are more like, “Push them away if you don’t want them leaning on you.” or “Tell them to sit. They’re well-behaved.”

    If my friends feel the need to praise my dogs, that’s their prerogative. If they do praise them, they might get a little lick on the hand in return, letting them know they’re on the right track. My dogs may even lick them, too.

  8. “Hi Pretty” and such comments aren’t really praise…I look at that as affection, love. We have two kids…they get praise when they do or try to do something good or helpful. They get direction and discipline when they don’t. But love…love they get all the time in so many forms!

    Seems like you’re doing a fantastic job!

  9. While I certainly praise my childs appearance by calling them “pretty girl”, I do what you seem to already understand. I teach them about inner beauty. I praise their good behavior, learned skills and smarts more. I think it’s about balance, they should feel loved and know that they have to earn their way through the world at the same time.

  10. While over praising can be detrimental, you never know what a child may or may not take to heart. Off handed comments can haunt a child for years with out any adult even thinking about it. You cant anticipate these kinds of things, and I have no idea how you could stop them.

    Here is an example from my childhood. My grandmother liked to take “modeling” pictures of me when I was like 8-14 or so. I would visit her every summer, she would dress me up in various outfits, do my hair and make up etc., stage photos and have a blast. It was fun, but one time she made the off hand comment that “I would make a beautiful parts model”. I know now that she meant that my long fingers, proportions etc. make my arms and legs very nice. I took this to meant that no one would ever want to look at my face. It took me years to get over this, but I never told anyone (until I had worked through my body image issues).

    As an adult that hopes to some day have children, I pray that I never accidentally plant some viral thought like this in my children/s heads, but I would go crazy trying to anticipate and counter act ever instance that this might happen.

    I look at it this way: Every child will grow up and will probably have an issue (or more) with something, wither it is body image issues, relationship issues etc. It will be hard and it will hurt to go through them. My plan as a parent is to teach the tools to get them through these issues and become stronger and more compassionate for the experience. Life is not a rose garden, but we can still appreciate their wonderful smell, even if we are pricked by some thorns along the way.

  11. I’m not reading the other comments ’cause I don’t want to be influenced.

    I have strong opinions on this one. I don’t think girls should be taught that their most important qualities are physical. I think it’s easy for little girls to latch on to the idea that Mommy and/or Daddy only value them for their beauty (i.e. I get loving sincere praise for being beautiful and only passing praise for decent behavior or performance in other areas). In fact, I tend to go the opposite direction and intentionally emphasize non-physical qualities of my daughter. She has the rest of her life as a woman to wonder whether she’s physically adequate. There will be plenty of people (whose opinions she will value more highly than mine, by the way) to tell her she is or isn’t “good enough” physically – I just don’t want to be part of that.

    I also don’t want to teach her that, just because she’s physically attractive, she’s somehow better than other children. I will say, “you look pretty” if she’s done something to spiff herself up, but I almost never say “you ARE pretty”and certainly not “you are beautiful.” But I don’t have an issue telling her she’s the most special girl in the world to me and that I love her more than anything.

    I know you in real life and can honestly say I that I can’t base my response on anything I’ve actually seen you do or heard you talk about. I would just ask you to look honestly at whether you stroke her hair and say, with the same love and adoration in your voice as if you were praising her beauty, “I was so proud of the choice you made today and I’m so proud of the big girl you’re becoming.”

    Hope that makes sense. Now I’m off to read the other comments and see if I’m completely off-base.

  12. I pondered the issue of praise and self-esteem frequently as I’ve raised my children (they are now 14, 17 and 19). I think it is important to praise character and that which they have control over more so than what they were given at birth. They may have a wonderful talent or gift, but that will only take them so far in life without hard work, effort and determination.

    I remember my brother and SIL telling their oldest that she was the most beautiful girl in the world. That always troubled me a little bit. She was, and, at 20, is a beautiful girl, but why would we want our child to think the were the most “anything” in the world…even in their little world. They need to learn to appreciate the gifts and talents of those around them and not think that they have to be the best. We would tell ours “you don’t have to be the best…just try to do your best”. Also, as some have already said, beauty is subjective. But you better believe that our kids know we think they are pretty/handsome, athletic (2 of 3), extremely bright (1 of 3), or whatever they are gifted with. We also try to praise the attributes that we want them to grow (whenever we see glimpses of them).

    Yes, I do think we overpraise children in our society. DH and I have certainly praised ours plenty, but I’ve tried to follow up any comments about God-given physical appearance, or ability, with a compliment about their character, or a challenge to their character. If a child is gifted in an area, challenge them to use it not for their own glory but for their team, or to help others, or to thank God for the talent/gift given them.

  13. I, too, tell my daughters they are beautiful and pretty all the time. It just comes out, because they are. They mesmerize me with their gorgeousness. We are constantly kissing and hugging and telling each other how beautiful we all are and I don’t think it’s a problem – for us anyway. Why?

    1. It isn’t absent-minded or thoughtless praise. I don’t ignore who they are or what they’re doing, just blabber some compliments and walk away. If my girls are ever mean-spirited or shallow or anything like that, you better believe they get the (verbal) smackdown. Luckily for me, my girls are very social, open-hearted and compassionate towards all (so far). But when they’re not, they hear about it.

    2. I rarely “groom” them, or primp them or preen them. They don’t know the ‘meaning’ of designer clothes (even though they have worn them at times) nor have I ever taken them to a fancy salon to get their hair cut. As far as they’re concerned, they’re beautiful just because they are – not because they’re wearing certain shoes or jeans.

    I think – especially with girls – they are groomed a little too early. For instance, I would definitely take my Jr. High & High School aged daughter to get a manicure on her birthday, but I know a mom who has her 5-6 yr old’s nails done – regularly! I think it means more (i.e. ‘becoming a woman’) when they are indoctrinated at appropriate ages & not initially embedded with the message that beauty lies in your clothing, hairdo, etc.

    I think there is something to be said of over praise, but more so about hyper-involvement, which is the way a lot of parents are these days. It goes hand-in-hand, really. The parents who follow their kid(s) around all day, schedule them to the hilt, insist they have everything, do everything, learn everything – all the time. The parents who blame teachers for their sweetiekins bad behavior, the parents that make sure their abysmal softball player starts every other game, instead of going… “hmmm, you don’t want to sit on the bench? Well, either practice harder or join the Math Club instead.” The parents who don’t have a shred of life outside their kids… To me, it’s just as bad as the burned out parents, who only had kids because they were 35 and it was the thing to do at the time and now it’s all too much of an effort.

    There is a point in life, or for me, many points in the day where as a parent , you have to say – “go play. figure it out by yourself. Good luck – I’ll be in the shower.” It’s the same thing as balancing the good praise with criticism and correction, showing them that while they are wonderful, beautiful and special, the Earth and its inhabitants don’t orbit around their beauty.

  14. I’ve thought about this one a lot myself. I have boy/girl twins, and I’ve monitored myself from the start about the messages that I give each of them. I think my kids are adorably cute, and I tell them so. But I also try to make sure that’s only one of many messages I have for them. As some of the other commenters have mentioned, I felt pigeonholded from a young age, and I want my kids to enjoy a more balanced view of themselves than I did.

    Like anything else that parents do, there is a continuum of too much/too little around praising your child(ren). I worry about parents who criticize way more than they praise, and I worry when I see praise that seems excessively frequent but relatively empty. My main concerns with my kids are ensuring that they develop internal motivations (not just external praise/approval motivations for doing things), and that they see and value *all* of their good qualities.

    When it seems that one or both of the kids are giving up easily when learning something new was “hard,” I make sure to praise them for incremental steps. When my daughter seemed preoccupied by the fact that her brother can run faster than her, I made an extra effort to comment on her strong body and the cool things she can do with it (dance, ride her bike, etc.). With all the weird messages about body image in the media today, I’m continuing to focus on the health & usefulness of her body rather than its beauty.

    So I guess my philosophy has two main components:
    1) Praise is less about quantity and more about quality.
    2) Strive for balanced praise, and try to be mindful of “labels” you’re putting on your kids (the Cute One, the Smart One, the Troublemaker, the Athletic One, etc.).

    Kudos to parents who are thoughtful and deliberate about praising their kids!

  15. Lots of good info here. I would say that like just about everything else– moderation is key.

    I was never told I was beautiful growing up (by my mother anyway). I was praised for other things, like my ability to play the piano or a good grade, etc… but never for my looks (again from my mom).

    My grandmother often showered me with praise about how pretty I was, and that made me feel like a million bucks.

    The biggest thing I’m seeing in the comments, though, is something I would definitely recommend you continue, and that is what I will call “nurturing compliments”. You’re nurturing her spirit, her character, and her intelligence when you compliment something directly related to those things. If all you do is compliment her beauty, then chances are she’ll develop issues around that– whether she becomes vain or shallow, or whether she works to downplay her beauty so that fewer people will notice it.

    So, as I mentioned before… moderation is key. Encourage her in all facets of her life, and find compliments that help her become a balanced person, so that she grows up to be well rounded.

    I would also back up the statement someone said above, that if you’re following your heart, you probably won’t go wrong.

    (And for others reading — I don’t have kids, but I have some child development background and my own experience. So, take what I say here with the grain of salt it’s intended to be.)

  16. Coming over from Twitter Mom.

  17. Of course she won’t trust your judgement, you’re her mom. But how can you stop complimenting her? It’s impossible. And consider the kids who’s parents don’t praise out of control. That’s sad. Pour it on. If you don’t, who will?

    Andrea (mother of a gorgeous child)

  18. You are doting and wonderful parents. I wouldn’t worry so much about what the “experts” say. There are many neglected children that would love to spend 30 seconds with you!

    As our children entered school they were no longer protected and cherished during school time hours. We gave our children the love we could when they were with us.

    At the same time, you must some how learn to prepare your child for the inevitable; bullying. It is alive and well, unfortunately.

    Your daughter will need the skills to protect herself from verbal abuse upon entering the school system. Perhaps you will homeschool? This again, has some drawbacks however it can be overcome with extracurricular activities.

    I’m looking forward to a bullying-free school environment – a pipe dream perhaps.

    All the best 🙂

  19. I’ve struggled with this, too. In the end, as long as you keep the praise honest – and deserved – I don’t think there is every any harm in it.
    My 4 yr old is taking gymnastics, and it has been wonderful for his confidence. When he comes out, do I tell him he’s doing great? Not specifically… he does a lot of “I can’ts” and I focus my praise on the trying, and the succeeding, or on the trying – and how I know he was afraid.

    I think the key is actually more in acknowledgement – not so much praise. I don’t want him doing things just for the praise. However, kids long for acknowledgement “hey mom, look at me”.

    So instead of telling him “You did great”, I might say “Wow, I remember when you couldn’t do that by yourself. You really tried hard, didn’t you”. I guess you could call it praising the act or result, and not the child him/herself.

    As for my daughter, I do tell her she looks pretty! (She is) and I tell my son he is handsome (he is!) But i follow it up with “but, even better, you have a great laugh (he does) or “you are a great hugger” (she is).

    Growing up, I was “the smart one” and my sister was “the athletic one”. The most important thing to me is to not label and give them many things about themselves to feel good about.

  20. Growing up, Dad was rarely around and was fairly critical when he was. Mom worked multiple jobs, so she had little energy for anything beyond the bare necessities. So, we never went without anything we needed, really, but we rarely received any praise either.

    I think sincere praise is always worth giving but maybe the key to balance is in giving encouragement as often as praise. I’m not sure quite how to succinctly quantify the difference, but there is one.

    With my son, I try to be aware of not overdoing it but I do praise him often. The thing I’ve been working on is to praise his deeds rather than him directly – for example, “That picture you drew is very pretty” as opposed to “you are a very good artist.” I’m not certain if this is the right approach, but it seems like a reasonable middle-ground. And it seems like a way to avoid slapping labels on him directly – artist, athlete, etc.