Give children a pat on the back — when it’s deserved

Jessica Young

Charlotte Thomas of Geneva is the perfect 10-year-old child. Straight A’s. Ballet star. Watercolor genius. Always insisting on inviting the oddball transfer student to her birthday parties. And her mom, Kathy, knows her daughter is a favorite among teachers, youth group leaders and other parents for her intellect, work ethic and perceptiveness. But living in fear that her kids will become arrogant or overly doted upon, Thomas is sometimes hesitant to give Charlotte a pat on the back after an achievement.

“She really is a fantastic kid. I want to tell her how special she is every day, but I’m really concerned that I’d be putting her on a pedestal if every time she sneezed, I started clapping,” she said. “How do you know as a parent when something warrants praise? I haven’t the slightest.”

The dilemma isn’t an easy one. Like many other parents, Thomas wants her child to feel appreciated, loved and confident. But not the egomaniacal subject of a parental shrine.

“It’s a bugaboo for parents because you don’t want to withhold that positive recognition, yet you don’t want to give it willy nilly,” said Dr. Paul Donahue, child psychologist and author of “Parenting Without Fear: Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Really Matters,” which was released last month. “We all feel our children are unique, so it can be a struggle to hold back a little. You, of course, want to enhance the esteem of your child, but you have to be careful.”

Diane Kubetz, coordinator of the Early Childhood Education & Care program at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, agreed.

“You shouldn’t be saying, ‘You got out of bed this morning! Yay! Here’s a sticker,’” she said. “That’s going to backfire on you. The kid is going to become so hooked that they need that recognition for everyday tasks to function.”

Kubetz distinguishes between praise, which she says is OK in small doses, and encouragement, which focuses the attention on a child’s effort more than the outcome. Rather than saying, “Good job on that exam,” Kubetz would reword the compliment to say, “I know you gave up TV for a week to study.”

“It’s important to point out the steps they took and sacrifices they made,” she said. “And explain why what they’re doing is good. ‘You tried to go potty, and look, your pants are dry.’”

Dr. Cheryl Zepeda of the Institute for Motivational Development of Illinois is of the same mind. As clinical director for the Lombard-based organization, she is a resource for families looking for cognitive-behavioral therapy or psychological support.

“You don’t want to say, ‘You’re such a good kid.’ Instead, go for ‘I like how meticulously you cleaned the table.’ Then it’s specific to the act or behavior,” Zepeda said. “You need to follow three guidelines: Be genuine, specific and immediate. The phrase ‘catch a child in the act’ is apropos here.”

If it’s painfully obvious that a child isn’t the best on the team, parents shouldn’t tell their son that he is.

“That rings hollow, and they’re going to question their instinct if what they believe to be true is different than what you’re telling them,” Zepeda said. “Instead, say ‘You were great at passing that ball to Joey.’ Kids can tell when you’re not for real.”

And with parenting, Zepeda said “no news is good news” isn’t an ideal approach. Parents shouldn’t wait for their child to do something wrong or fail to exert adequate effort to give verbal feedback. Positive reinforcement is necessary, but it needs to be proportional and focused on how the success makes the child — not the parent — feel.

“It’s all in how you frame it. ‘You must be proud of yourself for...’ is better than ‘I am proud of you for...,’” Zepeda added. “That lets them own it. There’s that pride of ownership rather than the external reward of Mom and Dad being happy about something.”

Donahue recommends that parents don’t overdo it with a litany of praise and indiscriminate adoration.

“These days, we run a greater risk of lavishing them in praise, and kids aren’t learning to stand on their own,” he said. “We don’t need to do cartwheels every time they remember their homework. We want to teach them to plug along.”

Child development experts often warn adults not to lay it on too thick.

“We’re a culture of praise junkies. The self-esteem movement is misunderstood,” said Dr. Jenn Berman, a family psychotherapist and author of “The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids.” “There was a generation of parents who didn’t realize their kids needed that input, and the pendulum has swung the other way. Those kids are making up for it by throwing praise at their children without them earning it.”

And that excess is just as detrimental, she added. It breeds kids who aren’t self-motivated and are counting on external cues like validation from their parents.

Berman cited a narcissistic personality inventory done recently with 16,000 college students. Two-thirds scored above average in the narcissism department whereas only one-third did in 1982.

“Kids are really self-focused,” Berman said. “They’re entering the work force and not getting that attention, not getting praised left and right and don’t know what to do with themselves.”

And that’s a product of being too liberal with adulation.

According to Donahue, targeting certain triumphs can help combat the phenomenon.

“You’re well-intentioned in the thought that ‘I’m going to tell my kid how terrific he is.’ But saying ‘You’re so handsome, so smart, so sweet’ nonstop isn’t that great for their perception of themselves,” he said. “Not that you should withhold all praise.”

The most important time to voice pride is when a child goes above and beyond, Donahue said. Instances of working hard, persevering, practicing, bouncing back from mistakes and overcoming obstacles are all worthy. Demonstrations of compassion and other values parents try to instill are also deserving of recognition.

Articulating why helping a special needs child at school or having the determination to master riding a bike after scraping a knee is commendable and much more effective developmentally than haphazard flattery over attributes like pretty hair, Donahue said.

“Commenting on the nuances is important. It shows you’re paying attention and caring enough not to just launch generic approval their way,” Berman said. “It will be much more meaningful if you’re praising the process, which they can control a great deal more than the outcome. It can enhance your relationship, done the right way and with the right frequency.”

Geneva Republican