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Have We Become a Praise-Dependent Culture?

Bonnie Harris

Responsibilities & Values

Parenting on the rebound from traditional, autocratic styles, whether it was how we were brought up or how many others we know were, most of us want the opposite for our children. The problem is, the opposite doesn’t serve our children either.

When we react to children’s behavior, we often compensate and go to extremes. For example, if I think my spouse is too hard on our kids, I will compensate for his parenting by being more permissive. He’s doing the same thing and compensating for my permissiveness. The interesting thing is that alone with the kids, neither of us is as tough or as soft as when we are all together.

Our parenting is in a state of compensation. If we don’t want to hit and shame our kids to get them to obey, we may fall victim to praising them to death. “You’re the best”, “You are so smart”, and “Good job” are easy to slip into when our little darlings are tiny and development is taking them along that wondrous trajectory. But this is the time habits start forming. These seemingly harmless expressions of pride we feel when our infants and toddlers are engaging in normally expected behavior can be the slippery slope into empty praise, cynical children, and entitled teens.

We live in the culture of “good jobbing” our children. “Good job” has become the new automatic whenever a child does something at all positive. Therein lies the problem. It is an evaluation, a judgment, a reward. It is conditional on the child doing something pleasing. Harmless when responding to a toddler learning to walk or pile up blocks but detrimental as time goes on when the child comes to either expect the praise, depend on it, demand it, or distrust and doubt it. A child needs concentrated, undisturbed time to discover the attributes of the blocks. “Good jobbing” him distracts him from his work and keeps him focused on his parent’s vigilance.

It also gets parents in the habit of praise leading the parent into a dependency on it and belief that the child requires it to do well. The truth is that many studies have shown that praise actually inhibits a child’s motivation to try harder and accomplish more. Praise is the proverbial carrot that children either reach for and grab (“I’m the best”) or miss (“I’m a loser”) or dismiss and grow cynical about (“I don’t trust you”). Never does it encourage self-evaluation, self-motivation, and self-esteem. That comes from an internal source developed best when a parent neither praises nor criticizes, but acts as a sounding board for whatever the child presents–being there, listening, accepting, encouraging.

Can we trust our children’s development enough to know that they will progress without our praise? Without stickers, gold stars and As in every subject? Praise and rewards foster children who either need it, look for it, and demand it—“Do you like this mommy? Is it good? Are you happy? Aren’t I special?”—or distrust it, dismiss it, or deny it—“What are you talking about? It sucks.”

Be aware of your language, put more thought into your responses, and stay away from the “good jobbing” slippery slope. Pay attention to what will develop your child’s internal moderator—right from the beginning.

Instead of “good job” try:

  • Saying nothing; simply watch (most of the time).
  • “You can balance on those boards.”
  • “I know you can figure that out.”
  • “You helped your sister when she needed a hand.”
  • “I appreciate your help when I have so much to do.”
  • “This is a hard project and I believe you can do it when you put your mind to it.”
  • “This is a tough lesson to swallow.”
  • “You walked from that chair over to the table!”
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Bonnie Harris

Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed. is the director of Connective Parenting and is an international speaker and parent educator. She has taught groups and coached parents privately for thirty years. Bonnie is the author of two books, "When Your Kids Push Your Buttons" and "Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With”. You can learn more about her work at or follow her on Facebook