Reigning in the Praise: The Case for Average

Reigning in the Praise: The Case for Average

Two days ago, my daughter and I went to the park with a ball the size of the ones we used to wing at each other during those dreaded games of dodge ball in junior high school. After kicking it around for a few minutes, we started an impromptu game of catch. Standing a few feet away from me, my daughter stretched out her arms in front of her. I tossed the ball gently from about five feet away and it landed gracefully in her arms.

She looked at me with a big expectant smile on her face, as if to say, “Compliment, please.” It reminded me of the dolphins I love to watch at Shedd Aquarium. After they complete a trick, no matter what it is, they open their mouths to receive a few fish as a reward. On the playground, as I peered into my daughter’s sweet face, I realized I may be way off base with my entire parenting philosophy. It seems my daughter expects me to throw some fish into her mouth, regardless of how big or small the triumph.

I’m all about positive reinforcement, praise, warm fuzzies - whatever you want to call it. Always have been and always will be. I toss out well-deserved accolades whenever I can and offer emphatic “woo hoos” to friends, family, clients, colleagues, perfect strangers, and especially my kid. Over the past five years, I’ve cheered her on for just about anything: smiling, turning over, sleeping in a big girl bed, peeing on the potty, you name it. But now that I see how she expects kudos after even the smallest of feats, I find myself asking: Have I taken this positive reinforcement thing too far?

As I think back now on conversations with my daughter, I'm uncomfortably aware of how praise has become more abundant in our home than pasta and bread sticks at the Olive Garden. You cleaned off the table in your play space? You are awesome – how about some TV? You chose your own outfit? Amazing! You spelled a word entirely wrong but, heck, at least you sort of tried – you are so smart!

At least five times a week, and I’m not even kidding about this, I tell my kid she’s “the best daughter in the whole world.” In the whole world? I can’t just tell her she’s the best daughter in our apartment, in our building, or in Chicago? No, that's not good enough for my kid. She needs to walk around with the knowledge that she is, in fact, the finest female offspring to walk the face of the earth.

Why do we feel the need to bloat our kids’ egos? Or are we actually showering all of this praise on them in order to feed our own need for greatness? I’d like to bring back a bunch of words I haven't heard in way too long, terms like “fine,” “satisfactory,” and “sufficient.”  It’s time to curtail the so’s and such’s, as in “you’re soooooo great at tracing your hand” or “you’re such an incredible hula hooper.”  I want to make good into good enough.

Watching lots of other moms and dads around me overdoing it with their kids, I wonder if all of these superlatives are part of the reason why recent college grads, 20-somethings and even parents like me often feel we've failed or, at the very least, are not living up to everyone's expectations. We grew up hearing “amazing,” “top tenth percentile,” “smartest” and “best” way too often. Let’s bring adequate back, people. Let's show our kids that being imperfect, typical or middling can lead to what might just be a spectacularly satisfactory existence. I’m ready for average. How about you?

~ By Wendy Widom


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    Great post Wendy! I was just thinking this the other night and wondering how our overly abundant praise is going to affect our kids long term. What happened to being just honest and loving - not necessarily SUPER DUPER Praising ALL the time? Good food for thought.

  • Thanks, Shayna! Now that I'm aware of it, I notice just how much I over praise. I too wonder what the outcome will be.

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