As parents, we are programmed to believe that our kids are great and beautiful and talented, and that is as it should be.
However, when we begin praising them for every move they make, every time they make one, it is my strong unwavering belief that we are doing the kids a disservice. Of course it’s exciting when a child takes his first steps. We applaud, we cheer, we tell him how great it is that he did it. But imagine if years later we were still cheering every time he walked into the room. We wouldn’t, would we? Because that’s just weird. I don’t know any parent who does that.
I do, however, know a lot of parents who do this: Their kid is good at art and according to them Every. Single. Drawing. is fantastic. More than fantastic. Prodigy material. Photos of the child’s work are sent around for friends and family to see. Not just now and then, mind you, but every time the kid puts crayon, or colored pencil, or watercolor, or pastel to paper. Tales of their artistic triumphs are told over and over (in the old days we called that ‘fishing for compliments’).
Or if it’s not art, it’s martial arts, or singing, or dance, or science, or math, or testing. (Yes, testing).
Here’s the thing. If your kid loves to draw and you tell them that Every. Single. Drawing. is on par with Picasso or Renoir or Monet, you are basically applauding every time they manage to walk into the room. If everything they do is ‘amazing’ & ‘fantastic’, you are not building self-esteem. You are, rather, creating a situation in which your child thinks that praise from an outside source is necessary to validate what they have done. Along with that is a weird kind of pressure or expectation. ” If everything I’ve done so far is wonderful”, the child’s thought process may go, “What if my next thing isn’t?”
My daughter Maya, in her very Maya way, gets annoyed if someone tries to tell her that a piece of art she’s created is “fantastic” when it is clearly not one of the better things she’s done. She’ll call you on it every time. She would much rather you be honest and say, “Yeah, that’s not one of your best.” Just today she told me that hearing other people praise something you’ve done is only nice if you’re proud of it yourself first, independent of what anyone else thinks. And that even if no one else does think what you’ve done or created is great, if you like it that’s all that matters. I have no idea where she acquired such wisdom, but I’m quite sure it wasn’t from me.
Praise does not equal love and becomes hollow when given as enthusiastically for the millionth step as for the first. No one, not even the geniuses of science, art or baseball (because baseball analogies are ALWAYS the best) hit home runs every time they come to the plate. Which is as it should be. Baseball would be boring – or more boring – if every hit was a home run and there were no strike outs, errors or wild pitches. Those imperfections make the occasions when they do hit it out of the park all the more spectacular.