It's built into the way most of us parent. We praise our kids for everything they do – broad praise that actually means little but has a major impact. Contrary to what many parents think, the impact is not positive.
Authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman share the negative impacts of overpraising kids in their book "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children." They emphasize the importance of praising a child's sincere effort and improvement on a task as opposed to labeling them as smart and throwing praise at everything they do. Kids who are overpraised and labeled as naturally smart are actually less likely to take on challenging tasks. They veer away from anything that takes effort.
More recent research has gone even further in proving that overpraising is a big mistake. Besides encouraging our kids to give up when things get hard, it also gives them inflated egos and may cause them to become narcissists later in life.
Though research points out that there may also be a genetic link to narcissism, children who are already predisposed and grow up with parents who constantly overestimate their worth and abilities stand a higher chance of turning into narcissists.
Do we say nothing?
The hardest part about this information is that parents, especially in the Western world, are primed to praise. We want to tell our kids how well they are doing, and we want them to feel valued.
These aren't bad desires, but raising kids who constantly reach for external praise, especially if we offer it when they don't do anything extraordinary, is a bad idea. We want kids to be intrinsically motivated, working to achieve their best because they want to.
There is praise we can offer in the right circumstances that can point kids inward. It can also focus them on hard work and effort as opposed to innate smarts. Instead of falling back on the old "I'm so proud of you" try one of these alternatives.
You should be proud of you
When we tell our kids we're proud of them, we train them to seek out our approval. We should teach them to seek out self-approval, being proud of an accomplishment when they know they put in all the effort they could.
This doesn't mean only being proud of themselves when they come in first place. Teaching our kids to be proud of themselves means teaching them that life is about the journey. Maybe they made a B on a test, but they know how hard they studied and what a challenge the class was, so they are proud of that B more than they would be an A in an easy class. It's a lesson in appreciating their own effort.
That took a lot of work
There is nothing wrong with acknowledging how hard our kids work. The key is to make sure the work is worthy of notice and to praise the effort, not the outcome. Praising the effort means our kids will learn to appreciate the work part of succeeding instead of assuming it should come easily.
I see the progress you've made
My oldest daughter sauntered into a gymnastics class and displayed the cartwheels and round offs she taught herself in our backyard. She walked out an hour later in tears.
Her form needed work, and this gym offered her challenges she'd never dreamed of facing. After she fell, her coach wisely gave her the advice that gymnastics is like life: What matters is if you get back up.
She did, and every week she's improved. I've told her that, never falling for the trap of telling her she's doing everything perfectly. That would be insincere and untrue, and she knows it. Praising her progress gives me a way to offer affirmation for her hard work and encourage her to appreciate the effort she's put into gymnastics.
You grew a lot from that challenge
Acknowledging failure is necessary. No one is going to win all the time, and participation trophies given to everyone often rob our children of the chances to experience, and learn from, failure.
We can talk to our kids about experiences that don't go well while still praising their ability to grow through the situation. Maybe a child doesn't make the team or win first place. Instead of railing against the people who didn't choose them or making excuses for why they lost, we can point out ways they grew. Did they try something difficult, develop a new skill, or find a new passion they can continue to follow? All of these are worthy of our attention.
Changing our method doesn't mean withholding affirmation
We don't have to be stoic, unresponsive parents to raise kids who are intrinsically motivated, nor do we have to underplay the accomplishments that are worthy of notice. What we need to do is become aware of how often we train our kids to seek external motivation and how much we heap empty praise on our kids for doing the bare minimum.
Withholding praise feels foreign at first, but it's a change that offers long-term benefits to our kids. Reducing the risk of raising a narcissist and teaching kids that hard work is an important part of life are benefits that make watching our words worth the trouble.