OurValues/OurKids: Is praise … unconditional or conditional love?

Mother and Daughter

Yesterday, we talked about “praise junkies”—kids (and eventually adults) who define their self-worth by the amount of praise they get from others. Some psychologists say parents create praise junkies when they generously ladle out generic, vague praise.

I confess that I do it. In an effort to convey my unconditional love to my young son, I have often used phrases like “You’re smart” or “Good work!” I now know that these often have negative effects on growth and learning. Providing concrete praise, linked to specific talents and skills, is more effective.

Now to make things complicated (as if parenting hasn’t always been complicated enough)—new research in psychology also says that we should provide unconditional love.

Selective praise could be an expression, intended or not, of conditional love. Conditional love uses rewards (like praise) and punishments to get kids to do what we want.

Conditional love may get compliance, but it can also lead to children who resent and dislike their parents, according to research summarized by Alfie Kohn. It can damage self-esteem as adults. (Read his recent article in the New York Times.)

Is it possible to give specific praise and convey unconditional love at the same time? Or, are these incompatible?

It’s possible, according to my interpretation of the research. We can accept our children for who they are, whatever that may be, and help them grow and develop by praising specific things, explaining why we do the things we do, having them participate in decisions, and allowing them to suffer or enjoy the consequences of their decisions. The key, says Kohn, is taking the perspective of the child and looking at things from the child’s point of view.

What’s worked for you – as a parent or as a child?

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