How to Avoid Raising a Praise Junkie

As a parent, I find it nearly impossible not to lavish praise on my kid.  I mean, he does something kind, considerate, empathetic, helpful – and “you’re such a good boy/sweet boy/smart boy” just flies out of my mouth!  I wrestle with “good job” on a daily basis.  But there is more and more parenting wisdom that points us away from over-praising our children in hopes that they will have an easier time grappling with failure, perfectionism and the like.  We reached out to Amy McCready, author and oft-featured parenting expert to give us some tips on how to cork our own over-praising tendencies and give our kids a solid sense of self-worth without needing to hear how great they are all the time.  —  Sam Kurtzman-Counter, Exec VP of TMC

By Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions

“I’m so proud of you!” “You are such a good boy!” “You’re so smart!” “You were awesome!” “You are such an amazing artist!”

Admit it, you have uttered statements like these to your child. It’s good parenting, right? You’re showing your approval and it makes your child feel good. When they feel better about themselves, they’re more confident and they’ll grow up to be independent, successful adults… or so the thinking goes.

Actually, while parents who praise their children have all the right intentions, the underlying result from the praise is a child who begins to need, crave and even depend on praise for their motivation, and the “praise junkie” habit is formed.

The praise junkie is a person (kid or grown up) who needs consistent affirmation from others to feel confident in his or her own ability or choices. Younger praise junkies may seek approval from parents and teachers. “Do you like my painting, Daddy?” “Was that a good shot?”

As kids get older, the praise junkie will turn to the peer group for approval, which is not what most parents hope for.

Praise junkie kids eventually become high maintenance employees -– needing ongoing awards, “at-a-boys” and recognition to affirm that he or she is doing a good job. Fortune 500 companies grapple with how to motivate praise-seeking employees. Ron Alsop, author of “The Trophy Kids Grow Up,” says that “Millennials (born after 1980) seek loads of attention and guidance from employers. An annual or even semiannual evaluation isn’t enough. They want to know how they’re doing weekly, even daily.”

What can you do to avoid raising a praise junkie? Here are three key steps:

1. Shift the focus from external to internal motivation.

When your child says,”Do you like my painting, Mommy?” Respond with, “Well, it’s more important how YOU feel about it. What do YOU like about your painting?”

Instead of letting “I’m so proud of you” roll off your tongue, instead say, “You must be so proud of YOURSELF!”

It’s fine that they know you’re proud of them, but it’s more important that they be proud of themselves. We want to instill in them the internal pride and motivation to take on new challenges, to work hard and to make their own decisions even if it is counter to the pressure of the peer group.

It may feel awkward at first when parents say, “You must be proud of yourself,” but you’ll notice your child beam with pride – from the inside!

2. Focus on the process versus the “end product.”

Pay less attention to the end product -– the ‘A’ on the science test, the goal she scored, the “amazing” painting — and focus on the process it took to get that.

For example: Instead of saying, “Wow you got an ‘A’ in science!” -– say, “Wow, you must have put in a lot of hard work and study time.” (Again, it’s great to get A’s, but how will your son feel if he works like crazy, but brings home a ‘C’ in Spanish? Should he feel bad about that if he did his very best?)

Parents should focus on the process -– the hard work and perseverance, especially when things get tough. Encouraging those qualities can help all kids to feel good on the inside -– not dependent on others for approval.

3. Avoid Labels – positive or negative.

Most parents know that negative labels are discouraging to kids. However, to avoid raising praise junkies, parents should also avoid positive labels. Labels like smart, pretty and athletic are external labels that put unnecessary pressure on kids to always live up to those labels.

Dr. Carol Dweck’s Columbia University research on the impact of praise concluded that when kids were labeled as “smart,” they felt the pressure to protect their “smart” label. In her study, the children in the “smart” control group were less likely to take on challenging problems for fear they would compromise their “smart” label. On the flip side, students who were encouraged for their hard work were willing to take on more challenging tasks and even enjoyed trying to come up with new solutions.

It’s best to stay away from labels all together. When you’re tempted to use a label, think about the qualities or traits that make up that label and encourage that in your child. For example: “That’s what I call perseverance!”

Parents should also avoid the over-used “good boy” or “good girl.” Instead, focus on the specific behaviors that you value. “I really appreciate the way you offered to help without being asked. That made my job a lot easier.” Or, if the behavior wasn’t appropriate, talk specifically about that behavior instead of labeling the child as “bad” or “naughty.”

All parents want kids to be capable, confident and motivated. However, praising kids too much can have the opposite effect. A good rule for parents to live by is to treat praise like candy – a small amount is fine, but a steady diet can be toxic.

Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time… Amy reaches a worldwide audience with her online parenting course, articles, speeches, live webinars, and media appearances, including The TODAY Show, Rachael Ray, MSNBC, Fox & Friends, ABC News, Sirius XM Radio, and is a regular parenting contributor for the TODAY Mom Blog (where this advice previously appeared). For more strategies to get kids to listen without nagging, reminding or yelling, follow Positive Parenting Solutions on Facebook.

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Posted in: Expert Advice, Emotions, Learn, Modern Parenting