How parents give encouragement to their children can have more negative effects than positive

Edmonton psychologists say

Edmonton Examiner
Wednesday, July 9, 2014 1:23:42 MDT PM

A lot of parents do it. They tell their children that they are the best, or that they are the smartest, or prettiest or strongest. This might have an opposite effect on the child.

This type of praise, according to Edmonton psychologist Jeanne Williams, may be hurting the children more than helping them.

“It depends a lot on what kind of praise you are talking about,” Williams explained. “Praising the product or outcome (e.g., “that’s a beautiful picture!”) can have the effect of making a child dependent on other people’s opinion.

“They don’t know whether what they have done is good or worthwhile until they hear it from someone else. The effect will certainly depend on the child, but this type of praise often has lifelong effects, creating adolescents who are unusually susceptible to peer pressure, and adults who crave the approval of others.”

Praising and encouraging the effort of the child is a lot more beneficial to them, Williams said. Statements like “You put a lot of work into that picture,” or “You must have studied hard for that test,” can have more positive effect, often leading children to work harder in the face of obstacles in the future.

Psychologist Joanne Koopmans pointed out that all this praise could be a reflection of the parents and their needs. What makes us want to praise a child and why the parents think they will benefit from said praise shines a light more on the parent and parenting style.

A lot of parents do it. They tell their children that they are the best, or that they are the smartest, or prettiest or strongest. This might have an opposite effect on the child.

This type of praise, according to Edmonton psychologist Jeanne Williams, may be hurting the children more than helping them.

“It depends a lot on what kind of praise you are talking about,” Williams explained. “Praising the product or outcome (e.g., “that’s a beautiful picture!”) can have the effect of making a child dependent on other people’s opinion.

“They don’t know whether what they have done is good or worthwhile until they hear it from someone else. The effect will certainly depend on the child, but this type of praise often has lifelong effects, creating adolescents who are unusually susceptible to peer pressure, and adults who crave the approval of others.”

Praising and encouraging the effort of the child is a lot more beneficial to them, Williams said. Statements like “You put a lot of work into that picture,” or “You must have studied hard for that test,” can have more positive effect, often leading children to work harder in the face of obstacles in the future.

Psychologist Joanne Koopmans pointed out that all this praise could be a reflection of the parents and their needs. What makes us want to praise a child and why the parents think they will benefit from said praise shines a light more on the parent and parenting style.

“A child has finely-tuned emotion sensors, mostly directed at the parents,” Koopmans said. “Is the parent okay? Anxious? Dismissing? Leaving? Upset? Happy? Content?

“Do we praise a child more when we are content? Or more when we are anxious? The child will soon take the cue and do what is helpful from his/her perspective to settle things down and go about their own explorations, as long as they feel secure.

“Praising a child is one way of showing our true colours to the child. When a parent is secure, praise will be recognizing something the child is trying to do specifically.”

Koopmans suggested that saying things like “Hey, you were able to climb all the way up the ladder today,” or “I really like the yellow in your drawing, it reminds me of a sunny day,” is more constructive as it includes a personal opinion of something the child has done and may have added value in the long run.

From Williams’ perspective, parents can healthily praise their kids by encouraging their effort, not just the outcome. Saying things such as “All that training really paid off in the track meet today,” or “Look how much homework you’ve gotten done already,” and making evaluative statements and trying to avoid praising the product are more beneficial.

“If you are going to use labels for a child, follow the same guidelines: that is, use labels that encourage a child’s effort rather than labels that point out inherent qualities,” Williams said.

Another topic that Williams and Koopmans touch on is the statement that a child can be whatever they want when they become adults. According to them, not only is this untrue, but it can confuse the child and hurt their development.

“Who are we to say what they can do,” asked Koopmans. “As much as we would like to play god for our kids, the fact is we are on a journey with them in which we have a lot of say for about four to five years, and then an increasingly narrower directing role.

“Gradually, the parents morph from director and all-round caregiver to coach to companion by the time the child matures. Being an astronaut (or whatever else the child chooses as a life goal) definitely happens after they become adults, and is really none of our business as parents.

“Whether they want to go there and whether they make it or not has a lot more to do with how well we encouraged them to take specific steps in that direction in their youth than in predicting something we have no control over.”

“I don’t think it helps to tell a child they can be whatever they want to be,” agreed Williams.

“Some kids have aptitude for math, or for music, for example, and other kids just don’t. It would be more helpful to make encouraging comments that are based on specifics that you see in a kid.

“There is no reason to tell a child what they ‘could be.’ If you encourage their abilities and their effort, they will go wherever they want with it, without the burden of perhaps not going where you think they should go.”

With all this said, there doesn’t seem to be the absolute right way to raise a child, but a bevy of wrong ways.

Koopmans works with Karunia Counselling and can be found at karunia.ca, and Williams runs Jeanne L. Williams Psychological Services and can be found at jeannewilliams.ca