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Praising our Children Manipulation or Celebration?

In recent years, some 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 use praise in this way. But I have also seen it take place in a way that I consider normal and healthy. After much thought, I've come to believe that avoidance of praise in toto is "throwing the baby out with the bathwater". While we should of course refrain from harmful, artificial kinds of praise, there does exist a more genuine variety that springs from the heart in a joyful way, and 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.

"Artificial praise" examples:

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.

"Genuine praise" examples:

The key difference between these two kinds of praise is our intention. Is it our intention to control the child's future behavior by the careful giving and withholding of our approval, or are we simply expressing genuine delight at the present moment? Obviously, if we mete out approval to our children when they are "good", and withhold it when they are "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. 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 withhold our true selves, we are missing the chance to have a genuine relationship with our child. In so doing, we are no longer fully present to the child, and are giving up some of the most joyous moments in any relationship: the spontaneous words and gestures that celebrate the love and joy between us.

The key is to trust ourselves as well as our children, and to identify and express what is in our heart. Withholding genuine positive feelings blocks an essential part of who we are. To celebrate and support our child fully, we need to express the love and joy we feel. The more direct and genuine we can be with our child in a positive way, the more likely it is that this message will be the most authentic and helpful response. Withholding praise, when praise is a simple and genuine desire, goes against all that our heart knows to be true and right. 

Children learn by our example which feelings are appropriate to share with others. Do we really want them to learn to withhold their most joyous feelings? Whether we give glib, manipulative praise we don't really feel, or withhold genuine feelings of delight or gratitude, we are giving a false picture of ourselves and teaching falsehood by example. We should trust our heart to know what is genuine and what is not. Empathic parenting should be simple. We make it unnecessarily complicated when we overanalyze.

While a child could get addicted to glib, manipulative statements of praise the parent isn't truly feeling, the wish for honest, genuine praise from those we love is a natural desire. It is human nature to want to please those we love and to know that we have pleased them. If we can follow our heart, we will naturally give our child what they most need: our authentic self and our genuine love and support.

Portuguese translation

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., is the Director of the Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby. Jan offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting, education, and personal matters.