It’s Not All Mary Poppins

On Junk Praise and Self-Esteem

It is just about lunch time, and, as is our routine, the children have been directed to put their clutter toys and games away. This was a while back, and I had just started a three-year-old. This is unusual. Generally I get the children as babies, fresh off mummy’s maternity leave, but this little one’s mother had opted to stay home until this year, so here she is, fresh into daycare at the ripe old age of three.

After I’ve set the table, I look around at the room. The two-year-old has put his toys away, one of the three-year-olds has hers away, and the third? The newbie? She sits beside the block bin, and has put perhaps three blocks away. Hm.

“Why aren’t you putting the blocks away, like I asked?”
“You didn’t say ‘Good job!’!”
“And I won’t until you do a good job. Away you go! Tell me when you’re done.”

Her eyes widen. This was not the reaction she’d been expecting.

She’s obviously been fed a steady diet of “junk praise” by her loving parents. Of course she has. We’ve all been taught to do that: to build a child’s self-esteem, you feed them lots and lots of praise. You note their small accomplishments, you give positive feedback routinely.

And what do you get?

Praise addicts. Kids who can’t do anything without being stroked constantly. They’re like a car with a leaky gas-tank, constantly needing replenishing. You can’t get half as far as you should on the fuel you put in.

What you don’t get is healthy self-esteem. What you don’t get is kids who can see a task through to the end — not without a steady input of praise and admiration.

I’ve been reading “The Self Esteem Trap” by Polly Young-Eisendrath. It’s clear, well-written, thought-provoking, and, if you’re a parent of children under the age of 25 or so, probably provocative. It might even anger you, because it rebuts some of the noblest parenting ideals of the last three decades. It’s a terrific book.

I’d recommend it to all parents. Being the thought-provoking work it is, it’s spawned at least four posts in my mind. This is the first. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of being part of a conference call with Ms. Young-Eisendrath. One comment she made stuck with me: “Self-esteem can’t be injected from outside.”

This is not to say you never praise your child, of course, or that you don’t take genuine pleasure in them. But when you’ve created a child who, at the age of three, can’t put away 30 blocks without four or five injections of praise and encouragement, what you have is not self-esteem, but praise dependence.

A child who is raised on a steady diet of constant praise for non-accomplishments can certainly gain an inflated view of themselves. This is not healthy self-esteem, however, for what happens the first time they bump up against something that doesn’t come easily, against something that takes a little perseverance before they’ll see success?

Do they have the inner resources to say, “This isn’t easy, but I know I can do it, a bit at a time?” Or are they more likely to say, “This is stupid!” and drop it, or blame the teacher for being boring, or declare the task irrelevant? Or, when they’re older and faced with a task they can’t drop, are they more likely to say, “I’m a failure!”?

It’s true. Over-praise a child, wilt in awe at their every burp and hiccup, and you actually undermine the development of their self-esteem.

I’d planned on more, but the tots will be through the door any second, and I want to get this posted today. Chew on that idea for now, let me know what you think, and be sure we’ll be back for more!

September 24, 2008 - Posted by | books, controversy, Developmental stuff, health and safety, individuality, parenting, socializing | , , , ,


  1. Mary, I very much appreciate your insight and blog. I’ve been reading for a long time, but I think the only other time I’ve commented was on the Book Binge last year. I am a new parent. I recall, perhaps on the blogger version of INAMP, that you had a list of books you recommend to all parents. I realize you are Very Busy, but I would love it if you could post that list again. Thank you so much for writing; I enjoy it very much!

    Comment by CC | September 24, 2008 | Reply

  2. I always tell my students (prospective teachers) that “Nothing succeeds like success at a task perceived as challenging.” It’s one of my favorite clichés. The last bit matters–if you give a child (or adult, for that matter) a task they see as easy, success is expected and therefore builds nothing much. And kids know when something has been made easy for them–if that happens, it has an undermining effect, because the message is “This is all I think you can do.”

    Praise is tricky. The main thing I understand about it is that all-or-nothing thinking will inevitably get it wrong: praise all the time, praise never–neither is good. What you praise, and how you do it, also matter.

    I was also thinking you remind me a bit of the baby-sitter we had (sorry, this was a long time ago, that’s what we called her) when I was pre-school. My mother spoiled me a bit (or more than a bit), and Mrs. Prather was more of a no-nonsense, but very loving, woman who expected me to mind my manners and eat my soup whether I liked it or not. One of my more vivid memories of her is how horrified she was when she discovered that, at the age of four or five, I’m not sure which, I couldn’t yet tie my shoes. She promptly sat me down and taught me. To this day, 55+ years after the last time I saw her, she occupies a warm spot in my heart.

    Comment by addofio | September 24, 2008 | Reply

  3. I was raised on junk praise. I can say from experience that it’s true what it does to your self esteem. And I still consider it one of the largest stumbling blocks to my development my first 20 years or so. I’ve never had the heart to tell my poor mom.

    Have you read this? I can’t remember how I found this article but it’s changed the way I teach.

    Comment by carrien (she laughs at the days) | September 24, 2008 | Reply

  4. I have to admit that I used a lot of “junk praise” (love that term) with my oldest. I was raising him as a young single parent who bought into the parenting “trends” of the day, including the overuse of the term “good job”.

    In my ignorance, I tended to overcompensate toward “It’s okay Dear, if you can’t do it Mommy will get that” or “Mommy will show you how again” or “Mommy will do this one and you do the next one” etc etc ad nauseum.

    Believe me, twenty years later this has come back to haunt me, in spades. Don’t get me wrong, Son is a great kid but he seriously lacks internal direction and self-motivation.

    I can see how much of his self-esteem depends on external sources and it makes me cringe. Though I keep trying to undo the damage I’ve done, it’s so much harder the older they are.

    I’m not saying it’s a lost cause, I’m just saying that if I had read this post 18 years ago, things might not be so tough now.


    Comment by Zayna | September 24, 2008 | Reply

  5. I mostly agree, though I do like the notion of catching them doing things right and using positive reinforcement as well as correction of what you don’t want. Around here, though, we try to phrase that praise either as “I like the way that you are doing X” for the specific behaviour or language use that helped avoid a problem, or more typically, by saying thanks and letting her know that what she is doing is appreciated, rather than it being direct praise. So we tend to say a lot of, “Thank you, I appreciate that.” Somehow, I think it seems different to let them know that what they are doing is a valuable contribution to helping things run smoothly in the family, rahter than suggesting it’s all about them, because I do completely agree about the source of self-esteem not being a constant stream of praise.

    Comment by kittenpie | September 24, 2008 | Reply

  6. Reminds me of Alfie Kohn’s PUNISHED BY REWARDS.

    Gosh, my “to read” list is getting long.

    Comment by McSwain | September 24, 2008 | Reply

  7. Regular lurker chiming in here… this book is definitely going in my to-do pile.

    Comment by Goldilocks | September 24, 2008 | Reply

  8. Balance. Always balance. One kid gets an abundance of ‘junk praise’ and doesn’t have healthy self esteem, another kids gets no praise and has no self esteem. Balance and moderation in all things. If a kid does a good job tell him he’s done a good job. If a kid does a poor job let them know that too and then demand / expect better performance. All kids are different and will respond differently to different environments and stimuli. Balance in all things.

    Comment by paulafrs | September 25, 2008 | Reply

  9. I like this post so much, I am going to have to check out this book. It’s a delicate balance, isn’t it? Praising, but not over-praising. I look forward to your other posts, and will add this book to the ever-growing pile.

    Comment by nomotherearth | September 25, 2008 | Reply

  10. That’s why I am not in favour of a new trend in schools to avoid telling children they have failed. Not only does this leave them unprepared for what will seem like very harsh judgment later, but also I think a child that understands they have support to improve, and who is praised when they genuinely succeed, is capable of dealing with failure in a positive way. And it makes their successes more meaningful.

    Comment by chosha | September 26, 2008 | Reply

  11. We’re really careful not to “overpraise” our kids. When my son does something that he is asked to do, I simply say “Thank you”. I try to catch him behaving like I want him to, and then I praise him (“I really like the way you are eating your dinner today. I like that you are using your fork so well”).

    What bothers me is when other people “good boy” my kids. I notice it much more now that we are trying to limit praise to things that are actually praisworthy, and hearing it actually makes me cringe!

    Comment by Naomi (Urban Mummy) | October 1, 2008 | Reply

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