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Praising children: Manipulation or celebration?

Submitted by Rita Brhel on 22 March 2022

In recent years, several writers have recommended that parents abstain from praise as well as criticism. They see praise as a form of parental manipulation of the child's behavior: more subtle than blame and criticism but harmful nonetheless.

I have certainly seen parents using praise in this way, but I have also seen it take place in a way that I consider normal and healthy. After much thought and discussion with colleagues, I've come to believe that avoidance of praise in total is "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." 

While we should refrain from harmful, artificial kinds of praise, there does exist a more genuine variety that springs from the heart in a joyful way. That gives our children what they most need: our genuine, loving support.

In discussions like this, it is essential to define one's terms. By "artificial praise," I mean words that are used deliberately with the intention of reinforcing a specific behavior toward a goal that is the parents' and not necessarily the child's. For example: "Tell Grandma, 'thank you.' Good girl!" or "Be a good boy, and give your sister the toy. Good for you!"

By "genuine praise," I mean loving words that arise spontaneously and warmly from the parent's heart without any thought of manipulation of the child's behavior. For example: "Wow! What a beautiful card you made for me! Thank you!" or "Oh, you swept the floor! What a nice surprise!"

The key difference between these two kinds of praise is our intention. Are we simply expressing feelings of delight in the present moment, or is it our intention to train the child's future behavior by the careful giving and withholding of our approval?

If we mete out love and approval to our children when we deem them "good" and withhold it when we deem them "bad," we are taking serious liberties with our power over them. We are also giving the same harmful message that all punishment gives: The child is loved conditionally, when and only when he or she meets our approval.

It is every parent's responsibility to avoid this kind of manipulation, but in trying to avoid it, if we are then afraid to voice any positive statements and therefore withhold our true selves, we are missing the chance to have a genuine relationship with our child. In a sense, we are no longer fully present to the child. In doing so, we may be giving up some of the most joyous moments in any relationship: the spontaneous words and gestures that celebrate the love and joy between us.

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Jan Hunt, MS, is the founder of The Natural Child Project.

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Praise is spontaneous delight