In Defence of Praising Children
Todays world places an unhealthy emphasis on being 'the best'. Certificates, trophies, scholarships, competitions, hobbies, and even friendships are all judged in these terms. Best friend. Best team. Best movie. Best student. Best dressed.
I am sick of people criticising participation awards. I am tired of hearing, “Kids shouldn't get trophies just for showing up.”
I have read too many articles suggesting that praising children encourages an attitude of entitlement and narcissism.
Do you know what I think encourages narcissism? Perpetuating a results-based, winner-oriented mentality.
We encourage narcissism when we send children the message that the result is what matters, as opposed to the experience.
Handing out trophies to everyone in the Under 8's Footy Team is not going to encourage entitlement, because it is the effort, commitment, and experience of teamwork, which is being emphasised in giving a trophy to every child.
Handing out a trophy only to one person, for being the 'best' player, or for scoring the 'most' goals, sends the message that children only deserve recognition for being inherently superior. I don't think it's a coincidence that 'inherent superiority' is a core belief most narcissists cling to, and base their self-worth upon.
All kids want to feel acknowledged. All kids seek love and approval. But if they are constantly being bombarded with overt (and insidious) messages that dangerously intertwine their sense of self worth with results-based 'success', then narcissism is an unfortunate potentiality.
The true value of any experience lies in the enjoyment and learning derived through participating in that experience. If a child understands this, they will not feel inferior if they lose. And they will not feel superior if they win. Their enjoyment of the task will not be dependant on the end result. Their sense of self-worth will be based on how they feel about that experience.
Children should be encouraged to participate in activities they enjoy, regardless of whether or not they are 'good enough' in the eyes of others.
What is 'good enough', anyway?
Does 'good enough' mean discovering opportunities to do things you enjoy? Does ‘good enough’ entail reluctant participation in order to receive a reward (or avoid punishment) from other people?
Sadly, through school, media, and even parental influence, many kids have absorbed the subconscious belief that they should only attempt things that other people deem them to be 'good' at. They think are only worthy if they succeed. If there is a chance of perceived failure, they may not even try.
Most people tell their kids, "It's not about winning, it's about having fun." Yet those same parents claim that only winners deserve a trophy. They say you should only praise your kid if that child has sufficiently 'earned' the praise. Isn't that a bit contradictory?
We need to reverse the mindset that value is based on success, and success is determined by superiority, financial gain, or glory.
True value is based on internal fulfilment, which can be measured in terms of genuine enjoyment, and growing as a person through learning, having fun, and exposure to new opportunities.
My children are home-educated, so they have not been affected by the results-oriented mindset that is a default setting of most classrooms. They are not rewarded for being 'good' at anything. They are praised for their enthusiasm, effort, creativity, ideas and autonomy. They are encouraged to work towards any goal that brings them joy, and are discouraged from comparing themselves with other people.
My children are confident, compassionate people, who enjoy a diverse range of hobbies and interests. They do not engage in tasks because they want to be 'good', although they do set themselves goals, and strive toward improvement in their respective areas of interest. Sometimes these experiences lead to recognition and/or awards, but those aspects are not what motivate my kids. They feel just as positive about experiences that don't lead to recognition or reward.
My kids love getting involved in community projects, and in activities they have had no previous experience of doing. Life hint - doing things you've never done before is how you learn proficiency, so never let a lack of experience hinder you.
My children, although they are not naturally competitive, enjoy entering competitions because having a goal, a set of rules, and a dead-line to stick to, can be an interesting and rewarding challenge, in and of itself.
Full disclosure - one of my three children has occasionally compared her story-writing, drawing, and guitar-playing abilities to those of her older sister. I try to discourage comparisons. Comparisons are pointless and damaging. How can a nine year old girl objectively measure her abilities against a teenager who has spent years practicing these arts?
Both of my daughters are supportive and encouraging towards one another, and there is no bitterness or jealousy. However, for my 9 year old, there was (for a time) an underlying feeling of wishing her capabilities were more in line with her sister's.
Recently, my nine year old experienced what could be defined as 'external recognition' for several of her artistic endeavours. She didn't come first place in either case, but she received positive feedback and public recognition for her efforts.
I was excited for her, of course, because she was excited. I was happy because she was happy. But neither she nor I were excited because she felt 'superior' or 'validated'. We were excited by the element of surprise. My daughter participated in these opportunities purely for the fun of being involved. It never crossed her mind that it would lead anywhere. She had no attachment to the situation - other than having fun working on the project, and exploring her own self-expression.
During this time, I had been reminding my 9 year old that she shouldn't compare herself with her sister, because it doesn't ever matter how someone measures up against other people. It only matters that you do what you love doing, in your own way.
The message my daughter took from her 'successes' reinforced the message that it is pointless for her to compare herself with others. She expressed herself through art in her own quirky, unique style, purely for the fun of creating. And that in itself is 'good enough'.
The irony of my daughter letting go of her inner comparisons through (so-called) success is not lost on me. However, I think it is worth noting that her experience with ‘external recognition’ served to reinforce the messages she was already being sent.
If she had been bombarded with messages telling her that winning is what really matters, or that participation is not equally as valuable as 'success', I'm quite certain that her own 'success' would have reinforced those (somewhat narcissistic) values instead.
I am proud of my kids, and they know it. I support them in their endeavours regardless of how apparently 'unrealistic' their goals might seem. Does this make them narcissistic?
No. It encourages them to be confident, ambitious, happy, creative, empathic, healthy and secure. They are not afraid to rise up to a challenge, because they know their self-worth is not determined by the outcome. They are not self-conscious in their self-expression, they are exactly who they are. They know that who they are is worthy of love and respect, regardless of external success. They are not ashamed to be themselves, nor are they arrogant and self-serving. They don't need to achieve to prove that they are 'good enough', because they already are 'good enough' regardless of whether or not the world tells them so.
When children are loved and praised for genuine and honest reasons, they have no need for narcissism.
If children are praised and rewarded for superficial reasons, of course those children are going to learn to rely on external reward, recognition, praise, or other ego-boosting behaviour to feel a sense of self-worth. They will learn that they need the approval of others. They may begin to feel entitled to special treatment in order to feel okay about themselves. They may take a lack of external approval as a rejection, or even an attack, on their own self worth. They may learn to do things for the sole purpose of getting something out of it, rather than for the simple joy of doing. They may form an unhealthy attachment to ‘outcome over process’. They may learn narcissism.
Praise and encouragement do not damage children. Receiving damaging messages (and having these messages reinforced by experience) is more likely to be the problem.
Part of being a parent is giving your kids the space to discover who they are. This does not mean projecting your hopes and dreams onto them, and hoping they will live up to your expectations.
It means living up to your own hopes and dreams, in order to model autonomy, healthy ambition, and self-respect. It means allowing your children to have their own dreams, and supporting them, even if those dreams seem overly ambitious.
If your six year old wants to be a video game designer, who are you to say that they can't try? They may never accomplish exactly what they set out to do, but so what? Does that invalidate the incidental learning they might encounter along the way?
Would it hurt to take your 6 year old to a coding class, and download game-design software? Would it really be such a bad thing if you found out your six year old has been researching what script they need to imbed into their game in order to create a functional scoreboard?
Would you tell your 6 year old they can't be a game designer, simply because you think it sounds too unrealistic, or too hard? If so, you might be placing too much emphasis on the outcome as opposed to the process.
The examples I just gave (about the 6 year old game designer) are actually true. My son recently turned 6, and decided he wants to be a game designer, and a YouTuber. I said to him, "What an awesome idea! What do you need?" (enter aforementioned coding class, and game design software, as well as his own section of our family YouTube channel).
Who cares whether he will 'succeed' at either of these things? The point is not to succeed. The point is to experience.
My son is not afraid of failure, because he places no importance on success. He has now made several video games, which are publicly available to play, and yes, he really did research the script required to create a scoreboard. He tried different ideas (unsuccessfully) for hours before he was able to make it work, but he learned so much in the process, and he taught me a few things too.
I don't play video games. I don't make video games. I don't know the first thing about coding (let alone the second and third things). But does that mean I can't provide my son with the opportunities he is seeking?
My son loves playing games, building games, and making videos about games. It makes him happy. He doesn't care about validation, or praise. Although I do admit, I have definitely communicated to him how awesome I think it is that he has creative ideas, enthusiasm, and dedication. The emphasis is not placed on the fact that he has accomplished something tangible. The emphasis is on the fact that he is creating, and learning, and having fun.
In one of his YouTube videos, my son says something along the lines of, "If you like this video press the thumbs up, and if you dislike it, press the thumbs down." He says it very matter-of-factly. He will not be swayed by likes or dislikes. He has no attachment to either. He is not making videos for the validation. He is exploring an avenue that brings him joy, for the sake of the experience.
I will admit, he does get excited when people like, subscribe to, or comment on his videos, but that's not because he craves the validation. It's because he is modelling the behaviour he has observed from other YouTubers he admires, and right now, his 'dream' is to be a YouTuber. I get excited right along with him, because his enthusiasm is contagious. Some of his videos have no likes and no comments, but he isn't worried about that. He is simply enjoying the experience of 'being a YouTuber'.
By offering my son the freedom to pursue his goals, and by giving him the space to make his own mistakes, I am sending him the following messages, without saying a word.
You are capable of learning new things.
I trust you to make your own choices.
With passion comes practice. With practice comes proficiency.
Fulfilment is not dependant on success or reward.
Learning is its own reward.
You are responsible for your own sense of self-worth and ambition - you do not need permission from others to feel that you are worthy of love, affection, or support.
You are capable of more today than you were yesterday, and you will be capable of more tomorrow than you are today. Life is a learning process, and everyone is at different stages.
You are always 'good enough'.
My six year old sees himself as determined, creative, funny, helpful, kind, and autonomous. His behaviours reflect these traits. His positive self-concept is reinforced to him both verbally and non-verbally, and he lives accordingly. He never puts other people down to build himself up. He doesn't feel entitled or superior. He feels confident and enthusiastic, and rises up to challenges because it brings him joy, and not because he expects to get something out of it.
Encouragement and praise will not make your children narcissistic, unless the praise they receive is superficial, external, or conditional.
If your child runs in a race and comes first, will you be proud of them because they won, or proud of them because they participated? If they come last, will you be equally as proud?
Do your children learn because they will be rewarded if they do, and punished if they don't? Or do they learn because they genuinely want to understand the world they live in?
The above question is simple, yet many people will be triggered by it. The value placed upon external recognition (and avoidance of shame) is so deeply ingrained in our culture, it is almost a default setting.
People who have never consciously observed the power of intrinsically motivated learning may even believe they have a responsibility to 'enforce' learning in children using manipulative, coercive or fear-based tactics.
As a society, we need to change this default setting.
Kids need unconditional love, freedom of expression, process-based encouragement, and supported autonomy. Kids do not need coercion, shame, punishment, comparisons, or pressure.
Analyse the unspoken messages you are sending your children. Reject 'conditional' approval. Avoid arbitrary reward and punishment. Do away with bribery and coercion. De-emphasise the results, and focus on the experience.
Celebrate the things your kids are excited about. Learn from them. Provide opportunities for them to pursue their dreams.
Model healthy ambition. Follow your own dreams, purely for the sake of immersing yourself in a new experience, with no attachment to the outcome. Let go of expectation.
Value the process above the outcome.
Above all, love your children unconditionally, and praise them every day.
Nanci Nott is the author of ‘Zany Circus: Paradox’, 'Zany Circus: Pythagoras Rules', and 'Why does my child hate school... and how can I help?'.
Nanci likes writing for children almost as much as she loves reading with them. Her own three children are particularly fun to read and write with. Nanci believes in the abolishment of boredom, and the presence of play in education. She loves persuading people to pursue their particular passions, adores alliteration, and stays up way too late.You can connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Turner Books.