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.

      • avatar Pinky35 says:

        Skyblonde, I agree with you 100% and wish that in my house my husband allowed me more of a hand-on role in raising my stepson. He is also bad at communicating with the ex and there are often many times when wires get crossed and things don’t get done like they are supposed to. When you married your husband you also knew that you were inheriting a child in the process and I’m sure you were prepared to take on the responsibility of being a mom to him. It also helps when the ex is willing to allow her kid to be parented by another woman. With me, I’ve got to deal with a jealous ex who doesn’t even want me involved. My step son picked up on that feeling from his mom and therefore it hasn’t been easy being a step parent at all. I sometimes wonder why I have stayed this long in a very stressful marriage.

        • avatar wendykh says:

          Maybe she’s jealous and doesn’t want you involved because you’re trying to insert yourself as you even say when you say you want more of a role in raising your stepson. You’re his wife, you’re the girl his dad sleeps with and lives with to him, nothing more. I say that as a stepchild who loves her stepmom, and stepmom myself, and mom of kids with a stepmom I adore. You need to form your own friendship with him and relationship. Not just be handed keys due to who you’re having sex with. Oh and while that’s lovely you were prepared to take on that responsibility? You didn’t need to. He HAS a mom. She may not be your preference for his mother and you might not approve of her mothering but she is his mom. SO back off.

    • avatar JRSunshine says:

      Agreed.  Step parents, particularly step-mothers, need to realize that they are getting children through marriage who already have two functioning parents.  So, unless the bio mom is an alcoholic prostitute, the children need nothing more than nurturing and supportive daily care from a step-parent when they are present. 
      As for the other issue:  states vary in how they issue permits and states vary in whether they accept learner’s permits from other states.  Kudos to the dad for caring enough to research the issue.  However, if dad lives in a different state than the child, the “enroll the kid in a class while he’s with you” suggestions are not likely to help.  Here in Texas, the strict and unforgiving policy is that parents cannot serve as formal classroom or behind-the-wheel driving instructors for their children if they have ever had a DUI conviction in any state (yes, I know from personal experience).  They can, of course, still drive with the child while she is practicing, they just can’t be the official “instructor” for required training.  So, the dad should just coordinate with the child’s mother and get the child enrolled in an approved driver’s education course.  He can also offer to pay so that’s not an issue.  Problem Resolved.

  8. avatar mac13 says:

    LW1: How old are the children you are complaining about? If they are 2 – 3 years old. I think “good job” and “wonderful” are just fine. If a small child eats their vegetable when they didn’t really want to, a good job seems in order. Now, if they are 8, not so much maybe. I can’t say where the age break needs to be, I would say that is on a child by child basis. Perhaps a child has learning disabilities. And as a final aside, bound to be unpopular; why do you care? In a society where we see children abused, killed and negelcted, someone gets perturbed about over congratulating? The examples you cite don’t seem to fall into that category to me.

    • avatar Skyblonde says:

      Unpopular or not, I agree with you! Why do you care what other people do? Does it harm you, your loved ones or your property? No? Then be quiet and mind your business. You never know someone’s situation! (In my case, my 50lb. 8yo does get praised for drinking his milk because he is on a medication that suppresses his appetite and he is quite underweight to begin with!)

  9. avatar martina says:

    LW1 – I vaguely remember this all starting 20 or so years ago when the child rearing authorities felt we weren’t giving our children enough positive reinforcement.  Now, that’s all they get. My husband calls this getting an A for effort. We just went through this with my daughter when she got her final report card and realized she could have done much better.  I didn’t really say anything and she complained that I wasn’t making her feel better.  I told her to let it go and move on and work to do better in college.  She wouldn’t let it go and I said there is no A for effort especially when there was none made.  Where did she get this attitude from?  Certainly not me. It isn’t just parents that are over praising its society in general.  This makes it difficult for the parent that doesn’t over praise because then the child feels that their parent doesn’t think they are good enough.  Every kid gets a trophy at a competition because, God forbid, there might be a child out there who didn’t win.  Why even compete then?

  10. avatar Sita says:

    Regarding praising a child. I used to say “good job” and “good girl” whenever my daughter did something such as finishing her milk, eating her veggies and went to the toilet on her own. I think it’s fine to praise very young children. As she grew older the praises became more infrequent considering a) she now can pour her own milk and drink it without being told; b) she knows all the thing she’s suppose to do and finish are for her own good and c) she’s getting older. She’s in middle school now and I don’t have to help her with most of her schoolwork any more, she knows where to look when she needs help. So last year she started and finished her science project all on her own and did a very good job and got her an award. Well I told her good job and I was impressed and she said “coming from you mom, it’s big”. Sometimes she would complain that I don’t support her enough with praises (I guess she sees how her friends being praised just for “breathing”); especially when I critizise her. But I told her I was just stating the truth and I know that in this world the only people who can get away with telling her the truth are her parents even when she hates us for it.

  11. avatar hicks426 says:

    L#1: I agree with others who say it depends on the child’s age. Are we talking about a two year old? Or an eight year old?  I understand that every tiny thing that an older child does should not be praised to the moon (although certainly some things should). But with a very young child, it’s almost become a necessity.  Gone are the days when parents can freely teach a child what NOT to do through punishment.  Here’s an example from personal experience.

    To become eligible for a Hague adoption, my family had to sign a pledge against not only corporal punishment, but even “stern words.”  Yes, really.  We already have a two year old in the home, and I was flabbergasted by this.  (And, by the way, we also had to pledge to refrain from using “stern words” with the son we already have as well.) So, I asked the dumb question: if we can’t teach a child what NOT to do, what can we do?  Here’s the answer I got: “Focus all of your energy on instilling one lesson: obedience makes mommy happy.”  Now, I do teach my son that I like it when he listens, but was told that I’m just not doing it enthusiastically enough. When I read L#1, it made me wonder how many other parents have been told this? And how many fail to realize that while it may be a lesson with some utility for a toddler, it’s also a practice that should fade with age, like baby-talk or training wheels. 

    • avatar Lila says:

      hicks426, I am SO glad I chose never to have children. I was raised with both praise and punishment, as circumstances warranted. I believe there absolutely is value in children having a healthy respect for authority.

      If your child is Little Miss Sunshine and never disobeys or tests you, and her whole existence revolves around making Mommy happy, sure, the Hague rules would be fine. Unfortunately, I have never known any kids like that. They (we) ALL test boundaries because they want to know where the boundaries are.

      And then you have the occasional bully / biter / animal abuser / fire-setter / tantrum-thrower / insert horrid behavior here. “Now, now, Mommy is sad when you burn the house down” just doesn’t cut it, sorry.

      PS, I actually knew a family where the kids ages 3 and 5 really did burn the house down, after quite the history of playing with matches. I don’t know what kind of discipline was involved, but that is one of those situations where I believe in putting the fear of death and eternal damnation into the kid if he so much as looks sideways at another match or lighter. The consequences are too severe to hope that a nice talking-to will solve the problem. It was only sheer luck that no one was hurt in that fire.

      • avatar Diagoras says:

        With kids that young you don’t put the matches in a place they can reach. Period.

        • avatar Lila says:

          Kids can reach and get into lots of places their parents think they can’t.

          • avatar Lila says:

            PS, my Mom was a smoker and matches and very elegant lighters were all over the house. They were one of those things we were not to touch, and we didn’t. I know in my case it was because I feared punishment more than I was curious about “don’t touch” items in the house. The lighters were in the same category with delicate breakables and rat poison. No fun to be had there. (and now that I recall the rat poison – this was a third-world country in the 1960s – “Mommy is sad when you eat rat poison” would hardly be effective, would it? No, some things have to carry the fear of death and eternal damnation right up front. Childproofing is not always possible… the rat poison was most definitely in the open and within our reach, and the dog’s reach, and we and the dog just had to know from the get-go to stay OUT of it).

            I admire Hicks426 for going ahead with adoption under such onerous parenting restrictions. Punishment and scoldings absolutely have their place as teaching tools.

        • avatar Briana Baran says:

          Or anything fragile? Or table corners, doorknobs, hard floors or window ledges, because they might bump their heads or pinch their fingers? Let’s not have pets, because they’re “dangerous”, and perhaps we ought to purchase knee pads and helmets for crawlers and the newly upright (both are available, do a Google search). Let’s don’t clean the house because cleaning products are toxic, or allow the child outside because an insect might sting, there’s a pedophile behind every bush, a germ might light on his skin, or she might get a scrape.

          Or, alternatively, this: Don’t touch that, play with this. Do not touch the stove, it’s hot, and it will hurt. No, you don’t pull the cat’s tail. That hurts the cat, and the cat will nip you. Here’s how you pet the kitty gently. Did you get a scrape? Let me wash it and put a band=aid on it. O, well, if you’re going to make THAT big a fuss, I guess you’re done playing…no? Okay. Don’t touch light sockets (yes, we put outlet blocks in them…but we still told the kids “No”). Is there arterial spurting of more than three feet, or any broken bones jutting through skin? NO? You’re okay (Morgan was “Wound Boy” for years, this became a running joke because of all of the alleged grievous injuries requiring band-aids to cover his “wounds”) probably. No triage necessary.

          And this: pay attention to your children. Read with them, play with them, set boundaries, teach them not to be bored, to self-entertain without looking for trouble, and enjoy and value the time you spend with them.

          BTW, Lila, my parents had matches and beautiful lighters everywhere, as well as guns in an unlocked gun case. We wouldn’t have dreamed of touching them, or the fireplace matches. I’m far from a perfect parent, but I am a PARENT. My older son is just like my ex, whom he chose to go and live with (gosh, wonder why?). My younger son understands the value of fair praise, and KNOWS when he’s done something special. He’s a confident, funny, brilliant, (irritating, snarky ***normal***) compassionate, loyal teenager. We must be doing something right…other parents keep inviting him over. That’s usually a good sign, since the other large-footed, loud, hulking boy-men seem to like him a lot too.

          Also those girl-creatures. Oy. A whole ‘nother country heard from….

          • avatar Lila says:

            Briana, ha! Sounds like your childhood house, like ours, was never child-proofed. The children were trained, and YES, that did involve an element of fear of consequences, as well as praise and engagement from the parents. Totally foreign concept these days.

            A co-worker once snapped at me that he never wanted his daughter to fear him. Such parents don’t get it; it’s not about fearing the parent, it’s about knowing in your bones that bad consequences will follow from our bad actions (even if it’s just embarrassment). If parents do this right, the kid will internalize this into integrity, reliability, responsibility, etc. as he matures. Doing bad things and having no unpleasant consequences is a great recipe for an over-entitled, self-important adult who thinks they can do whatever they want and nothing will ever happen to them.

  12. avatar mayma says:

    Let me see if I follow this…

    The ex in letter2 had a suspension seven years ago. The ex “somehow” got another license “without restrictions” in another state at some point; they “don’t know the details.” I know LW2 would just LOVE to know the details, but they don’t punish or restrict you for ever and ever, across all borders, for a DUI. (The state is kinder than LW2 would be, clearly.) But…. trying to nail that ex, LW2 researched information on the other state’s website to try to prove that the ex had done something wrong by getting the kid a dang learner’s permit.

    What do you hope to accomplish here, LW2? To alienate the kid by getting his permit taken away? To humiliate and shame the ex, at the expense of her son? To cause problems between the two parents of that teenager? How can you think that this will do anything but ruin the summer (at least) for everyone?

    LW2 says it’s “morality,” but it’s so clearly anything but that. That poor kid — a whole summer with the hall monitor.

    • avatar etiennewestwind says:

      The LW said the husband discovered the issue while researching the limits of the permit.  I assume they wanted to make sure they complied with the laws governing it.  A lot of states these days have restrictions on when and how a beginning driver can operate a vehicle.  Of course, since a permit isn’t a liscense they might want to make sure the permit is even valid in their state.  And if they’re worried that the DMV will refuse the kid a liscense if they later discover the DUI, they need to consult a legal advice board.

  13. avatar mmht says:

    LW#1: I think this started with my parents generation (I’m 30 y.o.) although I’m not 100% certain. Talking with my parents its evident that they never received the love/support as a child that they felt they needed and decided to raise their children differently; to raise their children knowing that they are loved, they are wanted, the things they do are appreciated, and to give them everything that they never had. However, I agree that it has gone way overboard. I see it in my own generation with my co-workers who clearly don’t know how to take constructive criticism because they can’t possibly fathom that what they have done is wrong. Or, they can’t seem to do simple tasks without expecting to be praised. It boggles my mind so I can understand how its a head scratcher for those in older generations.

    • avatar dcarpend says:

      I certainly think that kids should be loved and appreciated, and, importantly, seen and valued for the individuals they are. There’s a difference between that, though, and letting kids think that everything they do is perfect and praiseworthy.

      • avatar dcarpend says:

        I’ll add to that, that it’s also important that kids understand that, while the world is not going to reward you for less-than-great results, you don’t have to be perfect for your family to think you’re a wonderful, talented, valuable, loveable person.

        • avatar mmht says:

          dcarpend, I agree with you, what I was trying to say was that I feel people in my parents generation felt that way and swung the pendulum a little too far the other way in their compensation for those feelings that they had. Or, its possible that just my parents didn’t have the greatest of upbringings and I’m generalizing an entire generation.

          Either way, even as a young child I noticed the parents of my peers seemingly overcompensating for things to their children for reasons I never understood. By this I mean, there was the of course “Everything my child does is perfect” attitude but there also seemed to be the “I’m giving my child everything in the world” attitude, which included the child wanting for nothing. Not “needing” but “wanting.” My parents also probably would have fallen into this trap if it was not for the fact that they couldn’t afford it. They actually apologized to me not to long ago for not being able to buy me a car when I was 16 y.o. and for not being able to pay for my college. They said they felt guilty for not doing their “duties as a parent.” For both situations I was forced to get a job and pay for them both (college of course through student loans), but it was THE BEST thing that they ever did for me. Unlike many of my friends in high school and college, I learned how to multi-task, prioritize, save, and pay bills. I STILL have friends who have their parents balance their check books because its “too hard.” Come on!

          Basically, I think this over-praising is just one symptom of an entirely bad parenting style. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that these parents are bad themselves; what I’m saying is that in their want of making their child feel loved and special, in their want of their child having everything that s/he wants and needs, they are in the end raising people that don’t know how to live, interact, and thrive in the real world.

  14. avatar etiennewestwind says:

    An ironic mix of letters today given that my dad’s method of calming me down when I was learning to drive was to talk up my confidence.  While he was right that a rattled student driver doesn’t do as well as one who isn’t, he went overboard which probably did as much to make me reluctant to get a liscense as my mom’s ability to subconsciously pick up on my tension, get stressed, feed it back to me which made me more stressed…

    And this was two decent drivers who just needed to be in the car while I practiced what I allegedly learned in my high school driver’s ed group class.  Turns out one of our neighbors worked for Sears Driving School.  Suffice it to say, I’m a huge fan of individual private lessons if they can be afforded.

    • avatar Diagoras says:

      I agree. Just because you know how to drive doesn’t mean you know how to teach driving. My dad would panic and yell at me. I didn’t get my license until I was 33, after getting a private instructor. Now I wish I had done it much earlier!

    • avatar bright eyes says:

      etiennewestwind I told my son when he starts to drive – go find a car with no door latch, no hand rail (the thing you can hold on to on the roof of the car) or anything on the passenger side door. Then take my mother for a ride. I guarantee there will be nail marks CLAWED into the door!!!
      And that’s how I learned to drive- with someone stomping on a brake that isn’t there, yelling that I need to slow down (25mph), grabbing imaginary holds and hitting the dashboard because she knew there would be a crash. If you can’t relinquish control for a few minutes, then you will never be a good teacher. My son specifically requested I teach him how to drive. It’s funny because he’s got a few years left, but he’s noticing how people drive around him. Today a car cut me off with no blinker. I knew what was going to happen so I’d left room. He started yelling at the car from the passenger seat. 🙂
      Glad you had someone who could teach you without freaking you out.

  15. avatar Pinky35 says:

    Regarding LW1, in my opinion, if you praise all the time then that’s what they expect from you. They will want you to notice every little thing they do. So, I reserve my praise for times when my son really needs it. Like, if he hasn’t been eating well all week then one night he totally finishes his plate, I might say “hey, nice job!”. But, when he’s in swim class and he is too scared to put his face in the water and then won’t trust the teacher to teach him how to do it. Instead of telling him good job anyway, I try to relate to him and say that I can understand how scared he must feel at first but that if he keeps trying and gives it a fair shot, he will be okay. And the first time he does it without feeling scared, I’ll give him praise for it. But, I won’t gush every other time after that. Praise should be the push that keeps a kid going in the right direction.

    Also, if you tailor your comments to “hey, nice kick in karate class” instead of “you looked like a karate master out there today” it will give him positive reinforcement without go overboard. I won’t give him praise if he looks like he isn’t even trying. But, I will ask him why he couldn’t give his best effort that day.

  16. avatar dcarpend says:

    The bass-ackward thinking of the whole self-esteem movement of the past 30 years or so appears to have been that self-esteem leads to achievement, instead of that achievement leads to self-esteem. When kids conquer and accomplish something they will feel self-esteem.

    The worst was when, years ago, a couple of kids at a private campground we frequented were caught sneaking into people’s tents and stealing, also stealing from merchants. They were brought in front of the whole community — a fairly close-knit group of about 300 — so we could all speak our minds. I said that at 9 or 10 they were old enough to start deciding whether they wanted to be one of the good guys or one of the bad guys. The mother of one of these little thieves jumped in and took me to task for using the word “bad.” You should never, ever, ever use the word “bad” to children! No matter what they’d done! It would hurt dey widdle feewings, and damage dey teeny widdle self-esteeeem! Even if, you know, they’d systematically stolen from their own community.

    I have no idea where her son is now, but I somehow suspect it isn’t anywhere impressive.

    • avatar mac13 says:

      I have to agree with you here. How do you parent without the word “bad”? I will say, I don’t agree with calling a child bad. Like, “you are being a bad boy” I think you should say that the activity is bad. Like, “breaking other kid’s toy is bad”.

  17. avatar Barbara says:

    LW#1 – How right you are. Just try to manage one of these kids when they get into the workplace. They expect constant praise and do not take well to criticism. There are no constant attaboys when you are just doing your job!

    LW#2 – You sound like you are looking for trouble. If you don’t like the driver instruction given by mom, enroll him in a class where you live. Your holier-than-thou attitude isn’t cutting it with me.

    • avatar mac13 says:

      Barbara, I think your reasoning will fall on some deaf ears. I have been to way too many management seminars to count. I have always been taught the #1 rule for a happy workplace is to make the workers feel appreciated. They teach that poll after poll shows workers that feel under appreciated don’t perform well. I will always praise those that do their work well, that makes it easier to tell them when they aren’t performing well. I have had managers like you. Never a compliment, but will dog you for every little thing. No thanks. Same thing with kids. You have to praise them so when you try to adjust them they don’t feel that the only time you say anything it is negative.

      • avatar Diagoras says:

        I agree, but I think a better way to make workers feel appreciated is to give them some sort of job security. I know, I know, I’m dreaming!

      • avatar Lila says:

        Mac13, I agree praise is good for the workplace, but just like constructive criticism, it should be occasional and only when warranted. Just showing up on time and just doing the minimum requirements doesn’t cut it.

        Employees know who works and who slacks. If they are all treated to the same rewards and praise, the slackers will never get better and the workers will resent the whole thing and eventually go elsewhere.

  18. avatar JustVisiting says:

    In my area there is the option for a parent taught Drivers Ed, or you can enroll your child in a driving school, but they haven’t taught it in public schools in a very long time.  The schools are expensive.  The parent taught program still runs about $250 depending on which option you choose.  Maybe mom chose that option because it was the cheapest and that’s all she could afford. 

    It sounds to me like LW2 is looking for a reason to cause trouble.

  19. avatar JustVisiting says:

    The LW1 discussion led me down a completely different path.  My husband is a teacher, and he’s been teaching this Praised Generation for a while.  Bugs the heck out of him.  But then when he empties the dishwasher, or cleans a countertop, or takes out the trash, he gets his boxers in a bunch if I don’t praise him as if he’s just cured herpes.  Not sure how to help him see the irony. 

    • avatar Deeliteful says:

      Thanks for the laugh, JV! Your hubby will never see the irony, but let us know when he does cure herpes.

  20. avatar lebucher says:

    On the question of praise for doing everyday things, I agree that it has its place in little children when trying to reinforce what you want them to do.  And I see the harm in overdoing it too, especially as the kids get older.

    I was raised in a household that put more emphasis on negative reinforcement,and therefore did not praise much at all – even for accomplishments such as straight As in school.  For me that was a demotivator, especially when they made a fuss over my oldest sister not a few months earlier for the exact same accomplishment as I had made.  So the point here is to also be sure to treat the children equally, if you are going to praise one for doing excellent work, you should praise any of your kids that does the same. 

  21. avatar KL says:

    The over-praising is a balancing act. It’s important to get kids to feel that they’re valued, that they’re loved for who they are, not solely on what they’ve accomplished. When people feel that they have to “earn” love, they often get into some seriously screwed up relationships/dynamics because frankly they don’t love themselves (and the first part of learning to love yourself is having that reflected by your parents — it’s part of basic nurturance and attachment patterns). Many over achievers have drastically low self-esteem — in fact, that’s one of, if not the biggest, engine for their achievements. When you don’t feel good enough, you can keep trying to achieve to fill that void — to prove to yourself and others that you are good enough, successful, worthy of love, etc. It’s a painfully common pattern.

    However, this whole idea has gone too far where kids are praised for everything and that dilutes true praise and accomplishment. And, even worse, they don’t learn how to handle disappointment, losing, setbacks and failures graciously, or otherwise. And that’s super dangerous — to feel that life isn’t a struggle or a challenge, because then you’ll be perpetually disappointed and distressed when things are just naturally challenging (as life can be sometimes) and you won’t appreciate the joyous times nearly as much.

    So, you’ve got to find a balance. A way of parenting where a child feels loved, nurtured and encouraged, but also inspired to achieve and improve (and ashamed or disappointed when he/she hasn’t done as well as they could have or did something for which they should feel chagrin). It’s harder than it sounds, especially for those people who’s parents were too extreme in one way or the other (never had anything positive to say or only had positive things to say).

    • avatar bright eyes says:

      KL – I agree with you, there has to be a balance. When my son was growing up, there were certain things that were expected of him. If he did them on his own, praise was given, if not – why not? You have to have expectations for your children. When they do something above and beyond, that’s when you praise them. When they do something that you know is hard for them, that’s when you praise them. When they do something you expect them to – thank you is a good way to say Thank you.
      As a parent you need to find the balance that works for your child. Before we were working on common sense – if you drink something, put the glass in the sink. If you have leftover food on your plate, put it in the trash. The first few times this was done without having to be reminded – big praise was given. After that, Thank you was said. After that, it becomes routine and we move onto something else. It’s something as a parent you need to figure out – will my child get this down if I don’t praise him? Will my child be motivated if I say Thank you.
      And I do think age has a lot to do with it. Age 3 needs much more praise and feedback than age 13. As your child gets older, you praise for different things.

  22. avatar KKS says:

    As a parent educator for 20 years, what the research (and my experience helping hundreds of families) shows is that most of all, kids need to know they are loved.  That they are loved whether they get all the answers right, clean their room, comb their hair, etc.  Do kids need limits…of course!  Do kids need consistency….yes!  But it is an art to correct someone’s behavior while never having them doubt your love for them for one second.

    The research also shows that excessive praise fosters quitters, cheaters and the like.  In one study of middle schoolers kids were divided into 2 groups and were given a puzzle to solve.  Half the group were praised and told they were ‘so smart’ upon successful completion of the puzzle.  The other half were acknowledged for their effort and hard work.  The kids who were praised as smart were FAR MORE likely, when offered the choice of a more challenging puzzle to solve, to choose an EASIER puzzle (wanting to stay ‘smart’ and already addicted to the praise) and the kids acknowledged for their hard work were MORE LIKELY to choose a HARDER puzzle.

    So what is most effective is to give kids tons of love no matter what and to use SINCERE encouragement instead of praise….acknowledging effort, persistence, etc., when indicated; the other effective alternative is to offer SINCERE gratitude (‘thanks for your help with the dinner dishes; it got done so much more quickly when we work together’) letting a child (or anyone else for that matter) know the impact their actions had on you.

  23. avatar Hellster says:

    Self-esteem is generally gained by performing esteemable acts. Overpraising children is like the wallpaper; nice at first, but eventually it just becomes part of the background, and goes unnoticed. One has little to do with the other.

    The children of today’s young parents don’t seem to have many opportunities to have an authentic, unscheduled moment, and therefore they have little chance to engage in the kind of activities that build true self-esteem. They are enrolled in competitions and supervised to within an inch of their lives in artificial settings (“play date”, anyone?) and risk-free environments. Their “accomplishments” take place on a completely level playing field where “EVERYONE’S a winner!” thus depriving them of the true esteem-building effects of genuine accomplishment altogether. Should they ever “fail” at anything, their parents will complain to the “authorities” until little Hydrangea gets a do-over, and learns that the race is not to the swift, but to the one whose mamma grizzly squawks the longest and loudest.

    I understand the impule to shield children from life’s painful aspects. But the older generation’s job is to fit the younger generation to supplant us, and a certain amount of disappointment will go a long way towards toughening up our offspring for the long haul here on Planet Earth.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Hellster, “…the race is not to the swift, but to the one whose mamma grizzly squawks the longest and loudest.”

      Ah, yes, and this is why – no joke – we actually have some helicopter parents accompanying their Little Hydrangeas to job interviews these days (4% of employers report having witnessed this). Needless to say, it is a virtual guarantee that the job will go to someone else. Someone who didn’t bring their squawky mama grizzly to their interview.

  24. avatar Diagoras says:

    First letter….maybe this doesn’t apply, but we should keep in mind that sometimes a parent may temporarily give praise for an ordinary behavior in order to deal with a problem area. In other words, if you have trouble getting your child to brush his or her teeth, you might give praise for brushing teeth as a way of reinforcing that behavior until it becomes routine. The praise isn’t so much for the behavior itself but for the fact that the child is making an improvement in some area. It could be some parents go overboard with the praise but we should also remember that sometimes what a parent does may seem strange until you know the full context.

    • avatar joyfulmom says:

      I exceedingly agree with you.  I praise mine because when the action is completed, he needs to be motivated to continue to do what is asked of him to do.  I agree, when he knows he has made an improvement, I do not mind supplying him with “Thanks”, “Good Job”, “Keep Up the Good Work”, etc. 
      That also works wonders for my being as a parent.  I need to know that my continue expectations/hard work is being met!
      You’re right, it may seem strange to some because they don’t fully know the background.

  25. avatar JCF4612 says:

    1) The “good job” for everything from wiping one’s nose to tieing one’s shoes has been trendy these past few years. Likely not the end of civilization. But definitely there are dangers to too much self-esteem, which leads to too much self-entitlement.

    2) The kid is with you this summer, not her. Looks like you’re trying to create trouble from this vantage point. 

  26. avatar Carib Island Girl says:

    OK. I will get crap for this, but that first letter was right on. WTF? All it does is dilute the meaning of the praise. Just like calling victims “heroes”, they aren’t heroes, they are victims, like the people who died on 9/11 in the twin towers…yes there were some bonafide heroes who saved lives at their own peril, but let’s face it, there were few. How they died is mortifying and I cry every time I see a documentary, but the are not “heroes” they are victims. It just cheapens the words.

  27. avatar wendykh says:

    LW2 is a drama queen. All that needs to be done is consult with a local attorney who can find out what happened (yes, even over state lines) and it will be fine. Further, a permit can simply be obtained under dad’s name in his state. Ridiculous.

  28. avatar Lym BO says:

    Playing It Safe

    Dear Margo: I wonder whether I am making something out of nothing.

    Yes, you are in fact.