The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 29, 2012

Sarah Coyne: Praise kids like it counts

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — "Mom, look at this!"

"Hey, dad! Watch me!"

"See what I did?"

"Are you watching?"

If you're anything like me, the 20th request for notice usually warrants a vague smile and head nod, or perhaps a mild, "That's great, sweetie!" thrown in for good measure.

I always wonder if this is part of the reason our kids constantly need affirmation. Why are they left seeking more and more praise if we've just told them how much we liked what they accomplished?

If you follow the ideas I shared last week that our kids need to be motivated intrinsically rather than extrinsically, the answer is clear: Our empty praises are extrinsic in nature. They sound good on the surface; who doesn't want to hear that they've done a good job?

But empty praise leaves our kids without any ground on which to build. They're left trying to please the praise-makers without being given the tools to persevere when things start getting difficult. True motivation isn't present in empty praise.

Besides, do we really want to produce adults who rely on constant affirmation from external sources whose opinions may or may not be helpful or valid?

Imagine an artist praising a surgeon's technique. "Awesome work, buddy!" You immediately notice how little value the artist's affirmation holds -- he knows nothing about surgery, so for the surgeon to rely on the artist's praise is pointless.

But there are ways to offer praise with actual meaning. Real praise can begin growing your child's intrinsic motivation and pride in their work. It's done by praising attempts, effort and work, instead of the end results.

For instance, if the artist had said to the surgeon, "You spent 12 hours in the operating room putting all of your years of practice and knowledge to work, and now the patient will live. That's a true mark of dedication." The difference is outstanding, right?

The surgeon might be reminded with pride that the job was important. The self-satisfaction would be rooted not in someone else's pleasure, but in a deep sense of worth.

That's what our kids need too, whether it's a toddler trying to master potty training or a preschooler writing her name for the first time. When a child wants to be noticed, they can't yet verbalize that it's because they need to feel valuable and capable. So we have to be the voice they hear until they have it all built up inside: a personal well of motivation.

Where empty praise is second nature to many of us, real praise takes thought.

"You must be so tired after running those laps; just think of how much stronger your muscles are getting while you rest!"

"Remember when you first began to read, you got so mad? With all the practice you've been doing, you can read this whole book now!"

"I see how hard you worked to get to the potty in time -- you stopped what you were doing, and ran right down the hall! No wet pants for you!"

"You only fell off the bike once today! You're really catching your balance!"

Real praise builds our kids into people who want to be happy with their own work instead of constantly seeking affirmation from others. It gives them internal motors to keep them on the path to success. It helps them understand their value.

And the cherry on top is that the more real praise we offer to our kids, the more we help ourselves understand their value, as well.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife.