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The Inverse Power of Praise


From the moment our kids are born we constantly praise them and tell them how smart they are.  As they grow up, we think it will buoy their confidence and boost their self-esteem.  But new research seems to indicate that excessive praise can actually hinder our kids rather than help them.  Bronson and Merryman call it the "inverse power of praise" in their provocative book, Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children.  (The story first ran on the cover of New York Magazine in February of 2007 which you can access here).



American parents think it's important to tell their kids that they're smart.  The presumption, says Bronson and Merryman, is that "if a child believes he's smart (having been told so, repeatedly), he won't be intimidated by new academic challenges.  But new research suggests that "giving kids the label of 'smart' does not prevent them from underperforming.  It might actually be causing it (13)."

Excessive praise, according to Bronson and Merryman, not only distorts children's motivation but makes them afraid to try new things because they're afraid of failure.  So, instead of giving excessive praise, Bronson and Merryman encourage parents to emphasize the importance of effort.  This provides a variable that children can control and gives them the determination and character to keep going when they experience failure.


1. We must affirm our children and provide a healthy emotional atmoshere in our home *A healthy emotional atmosphere is one in which parents are sincerely affirming and encouraging their kids on a regular basis. Parents who give regular words of affirmation help their children to become emotionally secure people.  But these words must be specific, sincere and purposeful.  Ephesians 4:29 says, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."

2. Excessive praise can be harmful *I agree with the authors. Too much praise will not build a child's self-esteem, it will ruin it--especially if the focus of that praise is always on their intelligence.  Why?  Because increasing one's self-esteem is ultimately increasing one's focus on self.  And in the end, this will paralyze our kids into a life of fear and insecurity because their identity is found in the wrong place.

3. We must ask ourselves why we are praising our kids *Many times the motive for praising our children is all wrong.  Sometimes we praise them because we worry about them failing.  Other times we praise them because we pride ourselves in their achievements.  Either way the praise is all about us, not our kids.  This is image-control parenting, and it reveals our own insecurity and need for affirmation.

There are many reasons why we should affirm our children but the ultimate reason is that it's deeply Trinitarian.  It's God-like.  Think about it.  Before creation existed, God eternally existed in 3 persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).  These three persons perfectly loved and affirmed one another.  The Father affirmed the Son.  The Son affirmed the Father, and so on.  Amazing as it seems, we now have the privilege of participating in this divine form of affirmation as we affirm one another in our family.  Granted, we are sinful people, but we still bear the image of God.  And so we can point one another (albeit imperfectly) to the love of God through our mutual praise.