Are you inadvertently turning your child into a 'paralysed perfectionist'?

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Are you raising a praise junky?
Are you raising a praise junky?

Just about every childcare and parenting book touts the importance of praise or positive reinforcement for building your child's self-esteem.

Healthy self-esteem lays the foundation for healthy learning, exploring and development.

It is true that children need praise, but how much praise is optimal, and where exactly is the boundary between developing your child's self-esteem and encouraging arrogance, brattiness or, as some research claims, raising a "praise-junkie"?

To praise or not to praise?

Opinions vary.

Some experts recommend giving praise freely and lavishly. Many psychologists recommend praising your child each time he completes a task, helps out or is kind to his family, for example, to ensure your child develops a healthy, positive sense of self.

On the other hand, others warn that constant praise will render a child unable to judge his achievements accurately.

According to What To Expect: The Toddler Years, "Constantly telling children they're the best can turn out paralysed perfectionists who are so afraid of not being able to live up to overblown parental expectations that they stop trying."

Some experts go further by claiming that praising everything a child does not build self-esteem, as the praise becomes meaningless.

This doesn't mean that all compliments, all thank yous and all expressions of delight are pointless or harmful.

Rather, as education and parenting author and lecturer Alfie Kohn suggests, we need to think about why we say what we say, as well as the actual effects of doing so.

"Are our reactions helping the child to feel a sense of control over his life or to constantly look to us for approval?" Alfie asks. "Are they helping him to become more excited about what he is doing in its own right – or turning it into something he just wants to do to receive a pat on the head?"

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So, if too much praise is harmful, but praising your child is essential, how do you strike the balance between helpful praise and praise that stunts healthy development?

"At two to three years, you cannot praise too much, but you need to praise realistically," advises Johannesburg-based playgroup teacher Uke Collins.

Recent research seems to support Uke's approach. It's not too much praise per se that is a problem but praising inappropriately.

"Blanket, automatic or empty praise is useless; children see through it. The praise has to be grounded in something real," says Benjamin Mardel, a nursery-school teacher turned education researcher.

The wrong kind of praise, over-praising or praising inappropriately can develop a need in your child to be praised and teaches children that it is praise itself that is valuable and not the intrinsic joy or pride associated with good behaviour or a job well done.

What then is "appropriate" praise?

Instead of praising a child for his accomplishments, experts suggest:

1. Praising your child's effort itself, even if the outcome is not a success – "I can see that you tried hard to do that puzzle, well done."

2. Reinforcing your child's feelings of pride in his achievements – "Aren't you proud of yourself for sharing your apple with Tsepi?"

3. Praising attributes – "That was a very kind thing to say."

4. Being specific when offering praise – "Well done for picking up all those buttons," rather than just, "Well done."

5. Avoiding praise that’s not earned. Children can easily tell when adults are not being sincere.

6. Not reserving praise for your toddler alone. Let him see you honestly and spontaneously appreciating other family members, the person who fixed the doorbell or visiting children.

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Praise does not always have to be verbal. Sometimes a pat on the back, a hug or a proud smile is all that's needed.

Finding the right balance between praise that boosts self-esteem and overdoing it, is about recognising your child's individual needs.

Each child is different, as is every parent's parenting style, so pick an approach that feels honest to you and that best suits your toddler.

Maxine, mother to Samuel (4) recognises that her son needs lots of constant praise, "Otherwise he just withers," so she has specifically chosen a nursery school whose teacher is very generous with her praise.

Conversely, Zanele – mother of Amahle, Anda and Zandile – saw that lavish praise made her younger sons blasé and lose interest in the activity at hand.

"So I cut back and tried a more honest approach, such as, 'That was very good, but I bet you can finish that puzzle if you try a little harder.'"

In keeping praise individual, it is also very important to avoid comparing your child to others. Children whose achievements are compared to others often start to feel that it’s their ranking rather than their achievement that matters.

Another dangerous side effect of comparison appears when a child slips from first place and no longer wants to try because he's worried about failure. You can avoid these problems by focusing specific praise on your child's individual and specific progress.

Self-esteem boosters

Developing your child's self-esteem is not only about giving appropriate praise. There are many other ways of developing your child's self-esteem, Uke reminds us.

"Give them achievable tasks to complete, such as packing away toys or putting dirty clothes in the washing basket," she says.

"The joy they get out of being able to do the task, and do it right as well as independently, is a great self-esteem booster in and of itself. I knew I was doing my job well as a parent when I overheard my 3-year-old son telling himself, 'Well done, Luca' as he packed clothes from the washing line into the basket."

Sheila Riddall-Leech reiterates this in her book Managing Children’s Behaviour. "Giving children specific responsibilities can help them to feel empowered, provided that the tasks are manageable," she writes.

"When a child carries out his tasks of responsibility, he feels inwardly rewarded and motivated. Not only does this make them feel empowered but also helps to build up self-confidence and self-esteem."

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Other ways to boost your child's self-esteem include:

1. Believe in your child and show it – let him know he is worthwhile and lovable.

2. Practise active, reflective listening – listen carefully, repeat what you've heard to make sure you understand and give positive prompts to encourage your child to continue.

3. Acknowledge your child's feelings and help him express them verbally.

4. Criticise behaviour, not your child – be clear that it's an action you’re angry about or behaviour you don't like.

5. Respect your child's interests – take a genuine interest in your child's friends, and what's happening at school, and comment to show you're listening.

6. Accept any fears or insecurities your child expresses as genuine. Even if they seem trivial to you, don't just brush them aside.

7. Laugh with your child, never at him. All parents want to raise happy, well-adjusted children who have high self-esteem, but we don't want to raise pompous children that behave like spoilt brats.

Self-esteem is an important thing to instil in our children, but so is humility.

By balancing sincere praise with other confidence-boosting techniques, you can make sure that you do not cross that fine line when helping your child to have a healthy, positive self-image.

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