How I tried to avoid ruining my kid with praise

OK. I’ve written a couple of loosener posts now; it’s time to let you take a glimpse at the ridiculous nonsense that I allow to roll around my cranium on a regular basis.

I’m generally pretty sceptical about ideas that bubble up in the form of self-help books. I’m not 100 percent sure why this, but something in my brain chemistry is drawn to the musty, dusty oak-panelled doors marked ‘More Questions’ and ‘It’s Complicated’ rather than the big flashy tent with the words ‘It’s Exactly Like This!’ blazing atop it.

However, when it comes to being a Dad, there is another lurkier corner of my brain, the corner where most of my ideas about parenting skulk about, where answers are like platinum dust. In that part of my mind, I just can’t get enough answers; groping about at 3am with a screaming baby, I drink up the certainty of others with the biggest straw in the diner.

Occasionally, an answer comes along that has a nice, reassuring academic halo and enough disturbing questions in its trail to tick a few more of my buttons. It was a while ago that I followed a link to an article (perhaps this one?) with a title to get the guilt gland pumping, something like ‘How you can destroy your kid’s life by saying nice things but kind of in the wrong way’. That’s the kind of title that really lights up the synapses for a parent like me who is convinced much of the time that there is something that they are doing very badly wrong but they are too thick or lazy to be able to work out what it is. The details were interesting and also had enough of a familiar ring with my own experience that I could still make it all about me and not J-Rannosaurus Rex.

In short, the idea is that praising a kid for a personal quality (cleverness, goodness, kindness), rather than congratulating them on achievements or on working hard, creates an issue further down the line. (This may be yesterday’s falafel to you, fair reader, but the theory set up camp in my head for some time, long after I forgot where I saw the article.) The ‘clever’ kid is given the idea that they are clever but not the idea how it works, which creates pressure to maintain the image and to avoid failure at all costs; the ‘hard-working’ kid has a self-image of someone who sees failure as an opportunity to triumph, because they are someone who works at a problem until they succeed, because that is how their parents described them to them. You can probably guess which one is thought better-equipped to deal with the challenges strewn ahead of them. At this point, J-Dilla was only a few weeks old.

Dr L and I had already developed a bit of a twitch each time someone asked us whether he was a ‘good’ baby; we were pretty sure his moral compass was still in the shop. The whole subtext that ‘bad’ babies needed to be brought to the parental heel, especially over things like being asleep, brought us out in all manner of involuntary tuts and mutters. So, now things had been ratcheted up, and every morsel of praise that slipped our lips needed to be vetted. That was the plan, at least, but it’s surprising how easy it was to rain down thoughtless compliments on his little head, and that was when he didn’t understand what we were saying. Now that he’s old enough to understand us and old enough to tell us what he thinks, I’m more worried about shouting at him then forgetting to tell him how hard he’s worked at looking after smaller children at playgroup rather than just saying he’s kind.

It might all sound like an over-reaction, that it’s daft to worry about praising a kid irresponsibly, and there are certainly matters that feel more pressing these days. But at the same time, I can’t help feeling drawn to consider why it is that kids can react differently to similar setbacks, and L and I are big believers in the power of words and speech. Even a subtle difference can have an incalculable influence, especially over so many years and on some a malleable young mind. There was a description in the article of a kid who was considered very clever and capable that would either pick something up quickly and easily or drop it for good, reasoning that it was something they were useless at. I felt as though someone had pulled the feelings out of my head and printed them on the page; apart from driving and basic juggling, I don’t feel as though I’ve ever learned a skill or capability and now spend all my time on activities in which I feel strong and able, avoiding failure and believing that I can’t learn anything new. Fatherhood has been a big challenge to that strategy, as there’s so much to learn and nowhere to run from your own children.

So, we plug away, as we plug away at so many things, and try and remember to show J-Bone how he does work at making things happen. It’s easy to dwell on the mistakes that we make, that he makes, but as long as we keep adding some constructive praise to his drip feed the ‘hard work’ should pay off.


4 thoughts on “How I tried to avoid ruining my kid with praise

  1. Yes, I read that research too, and it all sounds perfectly logical. I’ve had to bite my tongue a couple of times after squealing ‘What a clever boy you are’ to my three-year-old. Part of the problem, I think, is that the child pyschology-approved responses tend to be a bit of a mouthful. ‘I can tell that you worked really hard on wrting the number four on the wall with your own snot’ doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. It’s important to get the old ‘growth mindset’ on the road, though, so we’d better grit our teeth…


    1. Yep. More gritted teeth ahead! I think it’s probably OK to tell a kid they’re clever as long as you show the workings, but yes, growth will happen no matter what, so it helps to give him helpful bamboo to work around.

      I’m dripping with liquid metaphor this morning.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fabulous post. I find there is so much scare mongering about parenting styles that it is all too easy to constantly doubt what you are doing and if it will have detrimental effects on the children. There are some really interesting studies about the effects of using certain types of praise in regards to competitive parenting though, which you may find interesting. Personally I try to empathise to my children that hard work pays off, but I don’t worry if I use terms such as ‘clever’ or ‘kind’ when praising my children’s behaviour.


    1. Thank you. Yes, mongering of much scare and outrage, but I think most people realise that parents do their best and not every box can be ticked. It is fascinating too, viewed more dispassionately, what great influence decisions that feel so small can have.


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