Dear Margo: Over-Praising Children

Should kids be lauded for every little thing they do? Margo Howard’s advice

Over-Praising Children

Dear Margo: I know your children are grown, but are you aware of what is called “over-praising”? My kids are teenagers, but I have friends with younger children who all seem to give their kids compliments and kudos for breathing. If a kid finishes his milk when requested, the mother says, “GOOD JOB!” If the kid brings her something she’s asked for, the response is, “Wonderful!” I think there’s something wrong with this. (How about a simple “thank you”?) Why not save real praise for actual accomplishments? Whose idea was it anyway to make kids think that everything they do is praiseworthy? — Helena

Dear Hel: Funny you should mention this. I have been thinking the same thing for a long time. This overkill strikes me as ridiculous, and it makes deserved praise almost meaningless. I’m for positive reinforcement, but going overboard makes no sense. The kid will think s/he is fabulous for no reason at all and will have a rude awakening as s/he gets older and deals with all kinds of other kids — not to mention teachers.

This instilling “self-esteem” on steroids has always seemed off to me. I do not know how this kink in childrearing got started, but I do know an authority who agrees with us. Richard Weissbourd, a family psychologist at Harvard, has written at some length about this misguided development. You might be interested in steering your younger friends to his book, “The Parents We Mean To Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development.” This would be far more constructive than rolling your eyes and saying, “Really?” — Margo, sensibly

Playing It Safe

Dear Margo: I wonder whether I am making something out of nothing. My 15-year-old stepson is coming to spend the rest of the summer with us, as he does each summer. This year he will bring his learner’s permit for driving practice. My husband reviewed the provisional license guidelines and realized our problem.

Seven years ago, the mother moved the children out of state after she was convicted of drunk driving and had her license suspended. We don’t know the details, but she was somehow able to renew a license in her present state (where she’d lived previously and held a license) without restrictions. She chose a parent-taught driver education program and listed herself as the parent-instructor. However, the website clearly states that one cannot qualify as an instructor if they ever have been convicted of DUI.

Do we bring this to the attention of the DMV now, before the child gets too far into his instruction? Do we ignore it and hope the lie holds up for the child’s sake? Do we allow him to practice driving here on a license that we know was obtained with fraudulent information? We struggle to know what is right in this situation. Perhaps I am too concerned with the morality of telling the truth and playing by the rules. Perhaps the DMV places too much emphasis on DUI convictions, particularly in a situation where there was no accident and no one was hurt. — Torn

Dear Torn: I don’t know what the relationship is between the exes, but your husband might tell the child’s mother that, in his opinion and in light of his knowledge of the DUI, a driver-ed course through his school would be preferable. Her rejoinder might very well be that her record is clean in her new state: a stalemate and a possible war. As for driving this summer, your husband has a great chance to do the instruction himself and somewhat moot your concerns. — Margo, compromisingly

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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77 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    LW#1:  I’m with Margo and you.   I recall reading somewhere that young people who tested with the highest self-esteem actually have the poorest performance in school…don’t ask me where and I have no idea if the study is valid so I’m glad Margo directed the LW to an authority on the subject.  I am re-reading a biography of the Churchills and I’m struck by the fact that Winston Churchill was raised by a distracted, completely self-absorbed and absent mother and a harsh father who told his son  (whenever he deigned to talk/write to him which appeared to be about 3x a year) that he would never amount to anything.  I’m not advocating that as good parenting…but it didn’t seem to do Churchill any lasting harm.  However, if I were LW#1, I would refrain from offering parenting advice and continue to silently and unobtrusively cringe when the overpraising occurs. 

    LW#2:  Why not use this opportunity to enroll the son in a driver’s education course in your own town…either through the local school system or a private driving school.  The important thing is that the son get good driving instruction.  I’m not minimizing the DUI of the mother but you may not have all the facts about the applicable laws in her state and what she did or did not disclose to the authorities.  I’m detecting that you are more interested in making problems for the ex-wife than you are in getting a good driving education for the son as the time to raise the  *bad ex-wife with a DUI who commits fraud to get driver’s licenses* issue would seem to be several years ago when SHE was getting a license to drive your husband’s child around.   Your husband could also offer to pay for private driving instruction in his son’s home state which would do away with the need for a parent instructor, legally qualified or not.       

    • avatar emma manderson says:

      Well no, maybe it did do Churchill SOME harm- that “black dog” of depression followed him throughout his life. There should be some balance, some middle ground, if you are to bring up a happy and self sufficient person.

      • avatar htimsr40 says:

        Excellent point, emma. Although the truth is that we don’t know what caused his greatness or his depression … but it certainly is not as simple as saying “Churchill turned out okay so the child rearing must have worked”. We are talking probabilities (the odds of having a child grow up productive and well-adjusted) and unless I see compelling evidence to the contrary, I would advocate for a balanced approach — erring toward one side or the other based on what I observe to be the needs of the particular child. I do NOT believe there is a simplistic one-size-fits-all approach as every child is unique and they respond to praise, rewards, punishments, etc. in their own unique ways.

        • avatar clmc20 says:

          Churchhill was bipolor. That is where the his depression came from.

          • avatar emma manderson says:

            And where did his bipolar come from?

          • avatar dcarpend says:

            Neurochemistry, same as all bipolar.

          • avatar wvdonna says:

            I have never heard Churchill described as bipolar, myself.  I am very glad he had the strength of will to rise above his parents’ treatment and help lead Great Britain as he did.  However, a lot of people do not have those reserves.  They may believe their parents’ love is either conditional or nonexistant and end up spending their lives fighting self-doubt and self-loathing.

            I do not believe in overpraising, but there must a sensible balance and children should know they are loved regardless of their skills.  

    • avatar Lym BO says:

      It sounds like Churchills’ mother suffered from narcissism & his father may have been bi-polar as well, which could account for his occasionally contact.
      Some kids will rise to the top regardless of their upbringing.

  2. avatar Dan Bingham says:

    LW1 – Additionally, the kids don’t stay fooled for long, believe it or not. Most will soon realize that finishing their milk isn’t ‘fantastic’, but they’re used to the constant praise, which ends up putting them in the odd position of both constantly needing and being completely cynical about praise (I had one of these in my high school class). They end up not trusting anything– themselves, their accomplishments, or anyone who gives honest praise.

  3. avatar BC says:

    There’s already a whole generation of young adults with narcissistic entitlement issues, partly because they were overpraised, never told that anything they did was wrong, and were always taught that whatever they did (no matter how little they did or how badly it was done) was good enough, even to the point of receiving a trophy just for trying! 

    • avatar hillidaa says:

      What drives me nuts about this “generationalism” is that it maligns an entire generation without having to know them personally. It’s just as bad as assuming that all black people love fried chicken and that all Asians are good at math. It’s lazy and rude.

      You have to remember that if you are going to bad mouth an entire generation for being “entitled” then you have to bad mouth the entire generation of parents above them for raising them that way – and hey, who taught those people to be parents? That’s right – the generation above them.

      I think people often overlook societal changes – one common complaint about yound adults is lack of “work ethic.” But when you tell children “You better go to college, or you’ll spend your whole life flipping burgers” is it any wonder that when they graduate from college, they don’t want to flip burgers? Even if they get a job in their field, in this economy, they can get laid off for no reason – what’s the point of loyality and building something from the ground up if it will be ripped from you so that your employee can stuff more cash into the pockets of its CEO?

      • avatar mac13 says:

        Hillidaa, so true.

      • avatar mmht says:

        Hillidaa, as someone in that “narcissistic generation” I understand where he’s coming from b/c I see many of my peers, but I also agree with you. That over generalization of my age group gets on my nerves to no end, especially since, as you pointed out, blame should also be laid at the parents who taught their children to act this way.

      • avatar chuck alien says:

        Seriously… Everyone loves fried chicken!

  4. avatar Briana Baran says:

    L#2: First let me unequivocally state: I believe in harsher laws for DUI/DWI’s. Here in Texas, it is a problem of truly incredible proportions. There is no excuse for getting behind the wheel of a two-ton or heavier battering ram and bomb when you’re incapacitated to even the slightest degree. None. Period. End of story.

    However, the ex was convicted 7 (that’s SEVEN) years ago. She was obviously given serious consequences, and if the son is 15 now, I have a hard time believing he was driving her around at the age of eight. What does LW2 know about her now? Does she still drink at all? A lot of people sober up completely after an experience like this. Has she gotten further DUI’s? Her license was “suspended”, not “revoked”. Suspension is temporary, it would be for a period of months, not years. After 7 years, unless she has had numerous drunken run-ins with the law, her license is valid, and there should be NO restrictions on it whatsoever. It may well be that the DUI must occur within the state in which she’s currently residing in order to prevent her from teaching her son. However, unless there’s a reason to believe that she’s an active danger to him, why throw a spanner in the works?

    I say to YOU, LW2, “Torn”, that you have no “case” based on the information YOU gave in the letter, and that you should stop trying to kick a peacefully sleeping dog. Seven years ago her license was ***suspended*** over a DUI, and for some reason you want to start trouble over a technicality. Do you both resent her, the son coming to stay, or are you simply that insecure? Let it alone.

    • avatar Lym BO says:

      Well said. Unless she is still driving drunk with the son in the car or driving the car who cares?

    • avatar John Lee says:

      “There is no excuse for getting behind the wheel of a two-ton or heavier battering ram and bomb when you’re incapacitated to even the slightest degree. None. Period. End of story.”

      If we are to be consistent with the idea that all drivers “incapacitated to even the slightest degree” have no excuse to drive, then we really need to put driving while using the cellphone into the same category as DUIs.  Also, old people (not sure at what age, but we can test their abilities) whose reaction time is reduced need to be stripped of their licenses as well.

      Possibly sleepy drivers, or angry drivers too.

      Drunk drivers are bad, but seriously, I get just as mad when I see people talking on the phone driving or when I see old people who are obviously dangerous drivers (not all old people of course).  Especially since drunk drivers are drunk only some of the time while old people who don’t have reflects are dangerous drivers ALL of the time.

  5. avatar Cindy Marek says:

    L #1: I also don’t think it’s a good idea to socially reinforce a child to think they/anything they do is endlessly wonderful. :- Because there will be plenty of people out there just ready to give that rude awakening. And yes, it does diminish *true* praise for a *true* accomplishment. And frankly it seems manipulative on the part of the parent: “Do what I want and you get a treat (praise).” I’m not a parent so dislike saying much, but children should have chores and responsibilities simply because they are integral to learning cooperation, being considerate of others, etc.

    L #2: I’d leave it alone.

  6. avatar Obediah Fults says:

    I grew up in Michigan where Driver’s Education was taught in high school. It wasn’t until I lived in several other states that I even heard of parents teaching their kids how to drive a car. This, IMO, is a terrible idea! Rather than following a standard curriculum, bad habits and ignorance are being passed from one generation to the next. I know adults who don’t know who has the Right of Way at a four-way stop sign — because, either, their parents didn’t know or were unable to teach the concept effectively. Without a standard course of education, generations of drivers continue to cruise along turnpikes and four-lane roads in the inside lane, oblivious to signs (every few miles) that say, “Keep right except to pass”. Such signs are meant to be reminders; not instruction. Without knowing the Rules of the Road in the first place, these uneducated drivers are creating dangerous situations and causing the epidemic of road rage to escalate.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Obediah, it’s no wonder we see so much crazy stuff on the roads! Virginia at least has always required a state-approved Driver’s Ed course for those under 19 but I am not a fan of how adults get licensed. If you are 19 and have never driven, you need only hold a learner’s permit for 30 days and then take the test.

      Here in DC, over 40% of the population is forign-born… And if anyone already has a license from anywhere, all they have to do is take our test… No driver’s ed requirement. Insane.

    • avatar butterfly55 says:

      In Texas they went through a spell where they not only did not need to take a drivers education class, if the parent signed the papers saying they could drive they did not need to take a test.  They were just given a license.  This was idiotic.   And the biggest idiots were the parents who gave their children the go-ahead with no formal training.  I have a niece who was in this group, she has messed up so many cars it is crazy, only by a bit of good luck they were all minor accidents!

    • avatar bright eyes says:

      Obediah Fults the schools here no longer provide drivers ed. We do have some odd rules about getting a license for a kid here though. I just went through this with a co worker but my son is a few years away from driving, so I’ll see how that goes :-p . I can pay a driving school about $300 for lessons, which includes them taking your child to the road test. I think I will go that route to save on insurance.
      What they have to do is – at 15 1/2 they can take the written test. They have a permit for 6 months (16) and during that time they can only drive with 1 person in the car (not including family members) and that person has to have a full license. Then at 16 you can take the road test. At that point, you can only drive certain hours – like before 10pm unless you have a job that keeps you out later than that and you can only have so many passengers. At either 17 or 18, then you’re good to go. Some of the things after 16 I’m not 100% sure of, because we haven’t gotten that far yet.
      But yes, I will be teaching my child how to drive – it’s better than the other people in the family teaching him.

      • avatar Lila says:

        Bright Eyes, you know – kids are learning through observing their parents’ driving habits over years of commutes and shuttling around. Not too long ago on a winding, hilly road with a double yellow line, a car passed us and the truck ahead of us even though the truck was going faster than the speed limit. So, speeding, passing in a no passing zone around blind curves and hills…. It was a woman with her teen son in the front passenger seat. Good job, Mom!

    • avatar Lym BO says:

      In Indiana & Ohio, the kids have to go through a private driver’s education company.

      In Illinois, when & where I grew up, our coaches taught Driver’s Ed (and Health class so they could be perceived as valuable). But that consisted of going out to drive maybe 5 times over a semester. We did learn all the rules, took tests & had a simulator. Most of our experience was garnered with a parent or another adult over 18. I do recall one coach telling us that we could always go 7 mph over the speed limit. I plan to use that quote if ever need be. LOL! My favorite driving experience was being told at my driving test through the BMV that I didn’t need to know how to parallel park since there were no parallel parking spaces in our little town. That has served me well in the 46 states & 13 countries I have now driven in.

  7. avatar Belinda Joy says:

    Letter #2 – Margo’s suggestions are perfect, but the truth is the letter writer has no reason to be torn, it is her husband’s responsibility to handle this….not hers.

    Step-parents tend to believe that they have a true say in the lives of their step children. I always believe they don’t. They are not the actual mother or father. Let his father be his father and deal with his ex. This letter writer’s role is to listen to what her husband says he will do or not do and offer up her perspective….but that should be the extent of it. When a divorce happens and kids are involved, the new spouse is just that, a new spouse, but they ARE NOT an actual parent and should not act like they are. The child has a mother and father. There is still a union there that a step parent is not a part of.

    If she has done something that is against the law, the right thing to do is report it. But the letter writer is not the one to do it.

    Letter #1 – Love this letter!  This instantly reminded me of the days gone by when I was a child and if there was a contest at school, there was a winner and there were losers. In today’s world, EVERYONE has to get a ribbon or prize because “We can’t allow anyone to feel as if they are a loser” even if they are.     

    • avatar Lila says:

      Belinda, yep, and learning to lose gracefully was an important part of growing up. It plays into good sportsmanship, teamwork, accurate self-evaluation, all kinds of things.

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      “Step-parents tend to believe that they have a true say in the lives of their step children. I always believe they don’t. They are not the actual mother or father.”

      Soooo…. if the child came to live with LW1 and her husband (or any step-parent and their spouse), you’re saying that LW1 has no rights as a parent?

      Can of worms. Opened.

      • avatar Michelles11 says:

        I believe step-parents should be given respect as the spouse of a parent and/or that of any adult.  I also believe that a person should be able to talk to his/her spouse about concerns and joys of parenthood and that the step-parent can give/discuss matters with the parent.  I don’t believe the step-parent should get involved with the OTHER parent or any discussions with the OTHER parent or the kids, and that, while perhaps a loving and nurturing caregiver to the step-children, should step back when it comes to actual decisions.  On the other hand, if the OTHER parent is not present or deceased, that is not really an issue. Of course, there are GREAT step-parents out there who only want the best for their step-children.  But I think there are many more that the kids would rather not have to deal with.   In this case, I’m not sure why you would want to create tension and conflict…as Margo states, perhaps Dad should put the son in some kind of Driver’s Ed program while he is with them to ease minds.

      • avatar bright eyes says:

        I agree with you David – I was raised by a ‘step’ parent. If he hadn’t been there to step in and help raise me – I wouldn’t have had a father at all. My ‘step’ father raised us as his own and we are better people because of his involvement. Did my ‘real’ father raise me at all? No, but that was his decision. My ‘step’ did such a good job raising me that when I became of age, I took his name as my own and have chosen to pass it along.
        Step parents should be able to work with the ex or other parents and be sure they have the best interest of the child to heart. If they don’t get along, try to have the ex husband speak with the ex wife – but you can’t say that a step parent doesn’t have the right to say what goes on in their house just because they’re not the biological parent.
        Is there a way for the kid to get a permit or license in the state that Dad lives in? He might need one anyway because I’m not sure if permits can cross state lines – he might check on that. And he can do the teaching while his kid is there. If something pops up about the DUI, then the kid can have something to fall back on.
        And in this state – a DUI stays on your record for about 5 or 7 years – I’m not sure which. Maybe it has fallen off and it’s not on her record anymore?

    • avatar Pinky35 says:


      I disagree with you that step-parents have no “true say in the lives of their step children.” If the kid is underage and living in their house, then he/she should always respect the wishes of both adults in that house. Period! Just because the step parent isn’t biologically connected doesn’t mean that they don’t have the right to help raise their spouses’s child(ren). It’s all about the connection/relationship between step parent and the child. I can understand how you feel because my parents are also divorced and it was hard for me to deal with a step parent coming into my life, but I am also a step parent myself and after being on both sides of the situation, I can see a broader perspective.

      In the case of this LW, my opinion is that she should drop the argument that the mother shouldn’t be teaching the son to drive if it’s been 7 years and she has been a good driver since her incident. And, I agree with others that since the son is staying with the father and step mother this summer, why not have the father go out and teach the son to drive himself, anyway. That way, the kid continues to get practice and training from both parents and doesn’t feel like he has started WWIII between them.

    • avatar Skyblonde says:

      Sorry, I disagree. And not just because I am a stepmom. In many cases, you are correct, if the kids are older, if both birth parents are active and loving, absolutely, the stepparent should probably take on a more hands-off role. Also, not all adults can effectively communicate with their exes, even for the sake of the kids. In my case, we have 50/50 custody. I am the mom at my house and I wouldn’t have married my husband if he didn’t want me to be. I make doctor appointments, I help with homework and volunteer at school, church, Cub Scouts, etc. I put them to bed, make sure they have showered, eaten their vegetables, etc. I don’t ask my husband’s permission to do these things for his kids. If I see something needs to be done for them, I do it. Their mom thanks me for taking such good care of “our kids” (her words). I communicate with the ex because not only is it faster (my husband forgets to ask her things and she takes forever to respond to him), but she is much nicer to me than him. We are able to work things out that used to end in yelling, swearing and threats to go back to court when it was between just the two of them.