'Praise' can be abuse, too

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Sun, 11 Apr 1999 17:08:33 -0700

[The realization that "play that scale you did so well again" is
itself corrossive was a really shocking illustration. I don't have
any access to my childhood and wouldn't ever draw a direct parallel,
but I find it very interesting that I have a firmly embedded myth in
my life-narrative that I was pushed to be academically excellent *and
that I am proud of it*: better off, more independent, and thoroughly
convinced that it was *my idea to begin with*.

For example, skipping grades made it easier to cope with ostracism
(weight, culture, frequent moves) by reinforcing the 'I'm special
because I'm smart' lifestory. --RK]

Getting Out of the Way
By Naomi Aldort
My husband and I are often complimented on our children's behavior
and demeanor. People think that we discipline them. We don't. It is
ourselves we discipline.

We meet our children's needs, provide for their protection, and
expose them to life's possibilities. We do not, however, meddle in
their play, their learning, their creativity, or any other form of
growth. We love, hug, feed, share, listen, respond, and participate
when asked. Yet, we keep our children free of insult and manipulation
resulting from "helpful" comments and ideas - influences to which
children are so sensitive in their state of dependency.

Parental Self-Discipline
This type of discipline is not easy. Not only does our society not
support it, but the temptation to break the "rules" lives within us.
The drive to intervene in children's activities is rooted in our
upbringing and reinforced in our culture.

For me, the most difficult challenge to overcome has been a
narcissistic impulse to show off my children. One day, when our
oldest child was two years old, he played a smooth scale on the
piano. I was amazed, yet held fast to my rule and stayed out of his
way. Free to play out of his own love and interest, and not to
gratify me, he went on improving his scale with tremendous joy and
concentration for quite some time. Not until my husband came home did
I fall into the trap. Unable to wait for a repeat performance in its
own time, I covertly tried to direct our son to the piano to do his

Untrained in doing for the sake of pleasing, he was not fooled. He
sensed the hoax and refused to play. Several weeks passed before he
again immersed himself in the scale. This child loves to do things
for others, enjoys helping and serving; yet, when he does something
out of self-interest, that is how it must remain.

Although the self-discipline required of a parent is often
challenging, it becomes second nature with time and experience. For
me, this type of discipline developed gradually, beginning with
"descriptive acknowledgment"1 and culminating in unadulterated
staying-out-of-the-way a few years later. My best allies have been my
realizations as a mother and educator, Daniel Greenberg's book Free
at Last, and discussions with Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum
Concept, about letting children be themselves.

At first, I thought that commenting, acknowledging, and praising
children for their achievements express love and build self-esteem.
In time, I realized that these well-intended interventions do just
the opposite: they foster dependency on external validation and
undermine the children's trust in themselves. Children who are
subjected to endless commentary, acknowledgment, and praise
eventually learn to do things not for their own sake, but to please
others. Gratifying others soon becomes their primary motivation,
replacing impulses stemming from the authentic self and leading to
its loss.

Contrary to common belief, children feel more loved and self-assured
when we do not intervene in their activities. Not only do they remain
secure in our love and support when we refrain from intervening, but
they need us to protect them from these intrusions, which can
interfere with their progress, self-reliance, and emotional

When we intervene with praise, wants, advice, and rewards, doubts
sneak in and shake loose our children's trust in themselves and in
us. Sensitive and smart, they perceive that we have an agenda - that
we are manipulating them toward some preferred or "improved" end
result. This awareness gets them thinking: "Perhaps what I am trying
to achieve is wrong - I can't trust myself to know or choose," or
"Mom and Dad have an agenda that I must fulfill if I am to have their
approval and their love."

Gradually, a shift occurs. Children who were once doing for the sake
of personal pleasure or understanding begin doing for the sake of
pleasing. No longer do they trust in their actions, and no longer do
they trust us, for we are not really on their side. Along with the
shift to pleasing us comes the fear of not pleasing us. Emotional and
intellectual dependency, low self-esteem, and lack of self-confidence
invariably follow.

Even when we intervene with casual commentary on our children's
imaginative play, doubts sneak in. What children are experiencing
inwardly at these times is so often remote from our "educated"
guesses that bewilderment soon turns to self-denial and self-doubt.
Moreover, children perceive the phony and patronizing remarks for
what they are, and may conclude that it is OK to be insincere and

From Praising to Observing
It is difficult to stop dishing out praise. For one thing, we are
hooked on our conditioning as well as on the "hard sell" of the holy
cow called Praise. For another, we are easily misled: the
praised-for-every-achievement child seems like a happy, successful,
highly self-esteemed child. In reality, such a child has shifted to
the pleasing mode, driven to success not by personal curiosity or
delight, but by the desire to oblige us and live up to our
expectations. As educator John Holt has said of children, "They are
afraid, above all else, of failing, of disappointing or displeasing
the many anxious adults around them, whose limitless hopes and
expectations for them hang over their heads like a cloud."2 In short,
the esteem we notice is not self-esteem, for the self has been lost
in the early years of this type of conditioning. The happiness we see
is not pleasure, but rather relief that another pleasing act has been
accomplished, securing parental approval (emotional survival) and
concealing a feeling of deep loss.

Children, too, can be fooled into believing that these pleasing
behaviors originate within and have everything to do with who they
are. The ultimate deception comes when children grow up to become
seemingly accomplished and happy adults. Psychoanalyst Alice Miller,
in her book The Drama of the Gifted Child, gives voice to the
lamentable conviction that arises: "Without these achievements, these
gifts, I could never be loved.... Without these qualities, which I
have, a person is completely worthless." Miller goes on to explain
why achievement based on pleasing denies self-understanding and, in
so doing, leads to depression, feelings of 'never enough', and other
emotional disturbances in often the most successful people.3

To "follow one's own drummer", a person needs to exercise the muscles
of free choice and self-learning from the start. The difficulty we
have in trusting our children's ability to flex these muscles stems
from our own experience of not having been trusted. Trusting is,
simply, not natural to us. Only as we make a concerted effort to get
out - and stay out - of our children's way do we discover the
wonderful truth: the magic is already in our children, ready to
unfold in its own way and in its own time.

Nearly every child comes to life equipped with a self that is capable
of blooming to capacity. Unhindered in its growth, this self will
lead the child to skills and knowledge and, in the process,
self-actualization. We have no right to attempt to control the
direction of this growth. Instead of training our children through
various forms of intervention to fit our vision for them, we need to
train ourselves to respect nature's creation and to safeguard its
full, authentic bloom.
Indeed, the end result we are looking for - an able, highly
self-esteemed, creative, curious, and responsible human being - is
already observable in a two-year-old child.4 Allowed to put these
gifts to use in a self-directed, self-trusting way, the youngster
will develop capabilities while enhancing these desirable qualities.
Maturation will then come as an authentic expression of the self,
rather than as an appeasement to parental authority and other forms
of domination.

Getting out of the way gives us an opportunity to become curious
observers. At the same time, it frees us of power struggles and
initiates an approach to parenthood that is infinitely more enjoyable
and fulfilling. I know of no more interesting, engaging, fascinating,
and glorious "entertainment" in life than watching children unfold

1 Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and
Listen So Kids Will Talk (New York: Avon, 1980), pp. 171-200.
2 John Holt, How Children Fail (New York: Pitman Publishing, 1964), p. xiii.
3 Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child (New York: Basic Books,
1983), p. 104.
4 Daniel Greenberg, "A Paradigm Shift in Education". An audiocassette
available from The Sudbury Valley School Press in Framingham, MA.
For More Information:
Greenberg, Daniel. Free at Last. Framingham, MA: Sudbury Valley
School Press, 1987.
Holt, John. Escape from Childhood. NewYork: E. P. Dutton, 1974.
Holt, John. How Children Learn. New York: Dell, 1972.
Holt, John. Learning All the Time. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1989.
Liedloff, Jean. The Continuum Concept. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1986.
This article originally appeared in Mothering, Issue 71, Summer 1994.
Reprinted and revised with permission of the author.