Speaking the Truth in Love: Using realistic, specific Praise!

For all you moms, dads, grandparents and teachers:

Kate and HaddieThis past week, I received the following personal testimony from a Veritas parent (who wishes to remain anonymous).  Her poignant story convincingly illustrates the dangers in inflated praise as well as the value of honest encouragement.  Read her story from start to finish!  It will challenge you – inspire you – and move you.  Her personal testimony contains an urgent message for all (present and future) parents, grandparents and educators and at the same time, it provides key insights for anyone raised on a diet of excessive flattery and unrealistic praise.

Speaking the Truth in Love

 In her talk, “A Mind and Heart Set on Growth,” Ellen spoke with us about the danger of inflated praise and the need to give our kids honest encouragement. As she spoke, I wanted to stand up and shout “Amen!” I have personally experienced the pain and destruction that such parenting can precipitate.

Consider a conversation I overheard on a resent family visit:

“Grandma, look at my picture.”

(Huge intake of breath) “Wow! That is so gorgeous! What an incredible drawing! You are really such a fantastic artist! Look at this; it’s really extraordinary!”

As I listen to this conversation, I strain not to roll my eyes or start up a caustic lecture about how the Lord commanded us not to lie for a reason. Instead, I take a deep breath and look for something to scrub clean. I know her intentions are good, but I have spent a sizable portion of my life struggling to cope with the effects of such inordinate praise and it is hard to hear my mother repeating the error with my own girls. Sometimes I am terrified that history will repeat itself.

In my own life, I have struggled with an addiction to praise and the feeling that it’s normal to receive constant accolades. Accordingly, I feel panicked fear that I’ve done something wrong when I don’t receive a steady stream of praise. A lack of significant affirmation makes me feel afraid that people have discovered the not-so-gifted parts of me and rejected me. As a result, it has historically been difficult for me to take real risks and be vulnerable. I am a driven person and have definitely taken calculated risks, but only when I was almost sure to achieve a better-than-average outcome. Any time I did take on something new, I exhausted myself quickly by ensuring it was practically perfect and sure to win praise; Consequentially, I was often unable to keep up the activity for long. I have worked hard for years to overcome these tendencies and I thank God for the good work He has done in me. However, it makes me sad to think that, although my mom’s sincere desire was to give her girls a secure sense of self-worth, in many ways her overboard affirmations accomplished the opposite.

But my own difficulties have really not been so terrible. I was fortunate to have several outside influences that helped me taste the sweetness of hard-earned praise and the unshakable self-esteem that comes from it. Tragically, my sister was, for various reasons, shielded from or denied such balancing opportunities, and as I write, she is a heroin addict living on the streets, again.

I love my mother dearly. She is a truly remarkable, incredibly talented, and magnificently generous woman. I wish you could meet her. However, her own mother, my grandmother, was a strict and exacting woman earlier in life. She almost never praised my mother as she was growing up for anything, ever. Grandma’s instinct was to constantly push and criticize in order to discipline the selfish sin nature right out of her kids. Mom was so hurt by the negative words and lack of warm motherly affirmation that she vowed never to do the same thing to her own children.

True to her resolve, my sisters and I grew up in a fire hydrants’ deluge of positive affirmations and bountiful praise. Like our mom, my younger sister, Sarah, has a very sensitive and relational spirit. My mom saw herself in Sarah, and, as a result, when Sarah experienced struggle growing up, my mom saw it through the lens of her own childhood hurt and need.

When Sarah encountered difficulty, it seemed to crush my mom. She wanted to do whatever she could to remove the pain for Sarah and to comfort her. My sister’s own coping ‘muscles’ were never pushed to develop. She received compassion, yes, but also the message that she was weak and needed special care. By high school, Sarah had little self-discipline or self-esteem and she started to get into real trouble. This worried my parents, and to rescue her, they moved her to a Christian private school. However, this school wasn’t inclined to treat Sarah’s delinquency with positive affirmation and she didn’t last long. The school attempted to love her with boundaries and consequences that my mother felt were too unsympathetic for her sensitive daughter. Unable to draw boundaries, unable to follow rules, feeling that love will rescue, excuse, and lavish praise where there has been no real effort, Sarah continued to slide down hill as she encountered more and more of reality.

You know it’s been a horrifying journey when you remember visiting someone in prison as the good times. Anorexia had turned into bulimia, which turned into a crystal meth addiction, which led to homelessness and much, much more. At least when Sarah was in prison, we knew she was sheltered, fed, away from men, and probably sober. After prison, she eventually relapsed into heroin and all the horrible social ills that world can boast. In one last desperate effort, the family pooled together to have an intervention and pay for a reputable faith-based rehab. However, the rescuing, excusing, and falsely praising dynamic remained entrenched in the family and after rehab it was less than 2 years before a relapse back into drugs, back into homelessness.

If positive affirmation could save someone, Sarah would be fine. She has received no shortage of encouragement. Not too long ago, while we were struggling to keep Sarah clean and find her a job after rehab, she lamented, “I wish mom would stop saying that I am going to be a first-class brilliant lawyer some day. It’s too much pressure.” Mom thought she was giving Sarah hope and encouragement by often saying how she could still pull through this and become some amazing author or brilliant lawyer. In truth, mom’s “big praise” was communicating that simply being a functional adult who knew Jesus was an insufficient goal, not big enough to redeem the years of horrific failure.

I love Sarah almost more than anyone else in the world. She truly is, as God made her, a very bright, witty, compassionate, fun, and creative person. When she is functional, she is honestly one of my very favorite people. But that person is all but lost to me now and I grieve it daily. Some days I feel depressed and hopeless, but more often my grief fuels the fire of Christ’s sanctification in me. I am resolved to take my own hurts to the Lord for healing so I can be free to see my children clearly and love them robustly. I want to be as careful of the flatterer as I am of the critic.

For a moment, consider my daughter’s artwork again. Out of habit and default programming, I have also tended to over-praise. For a year or two, my daughter really didn’t grow in her art skills. She colored her drawings super fast and somewhat messily. When I asked her, “Why don’t you try coloring a bit more slowly so you cover all the blank spaces and make a nice smooth texture?” she replied, “Nah.” I realized, why should she? I praise her picture as if it were a Monet when she only expends 5 minutes of effort. Why should she cultivate the patience to spend 15 more minutes – not to mention the hours or days that truly “gorgeous” or “incredible” art requires? What further reward had she to gain?

The truth is, her picture IS cute. She draws her faces with lively expression and her style is fun and whimsical. So I tell her this. I am no advocate of criticizing children in order to wrench effort out of them, but I am a promoter of sincere appreciation and realistic, specific praise. This little bit of appropriate, proportionate encouragement whets my daughter’s appetite for real reward and motivates hard work. Her soul is being expanded and given the capacity to richly enjoy great things because she will have a sense of the effort and skill that actually goes into them. Furthermore, when my child encounters the truly AWEsome, she will have the words to describe and savor it, because I haven’t cheapened their meaning on the mediocre. She will be free from the destructive path self-delusion and free to recognize and enjoy some of God’s truly incredible, extraordinary gifts.

For more information on this important topic, go to Replacing Excessive Praise with Growth Statements.

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