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Am I supposed to praise my child?

It is a classic conundrum all parents face: Their child hands them a “drawing” (or other art object) and says, “Here, I made this for you.”

A quick inspection reveals some type of mixed media combination on a sheet of paper. The drawing, or painting, looks like a blurred image of a map of Crimea. Or a rhinoceros. Or maybe a picture of your living room pillow after your dog chewed it up.

While you are trying to figure out what it is, you buy time by uttering unintelligible sounds such as “oooh, hmmm, wow! Well look at that!”

And then the child says, “Do you like it? It’s you!”

Tough spot.

Dave WenzelIf you say yes, you like it, you’ve lied. And you’ve tried to teach them not to lie. Hence you’re being a hypocrite, something else you’ve taught them not to do. On the other hand if you say no, that you’ve seen better artwork in the bottom of your trash can, you might damage their ego, sending them into a self-esteem tailspin from which they will never recover, and probably putting them on a trajectory to end up living below a bridge somewhere.

So you do whatever any good parent would do: You choose the lesser of the two evils and lie.

“It looks great! I’m impressed.”

And you put it up on the front of the refrigerator. Along with 23 other pictures or drawings.

What are we supposed to do in that situation? I actually don’t like the term “self-esteem.”

Our culture’s fixation on self-esteem, and our fear of damaging it, has led to a couple of decades of parenting and school feedback that has resulted in meaningless participation awards.

I’ve assisted as three of my kids have emptied their bedrooms to move out and all the participation awards went into the trash. Kids don’t value meaningless praise.

So I suggest we drop the concept of self-esteem and focus instead on building positive self worth: my ability to contribute in a positive and productive way. So how do we build that?

Actually, it isn’t complicated.

Do three things:

• Train a child,

• Give substantive feedback, and

• Do both in an environment characterized by warmth or caring.

First, train the child. Never expect a child to do something they haven’t been trained to do. Want them to vacuum? Show them how, explain what you are doing, them have them do it. Give them substantive feedback: “I see you got the hallway really well, I can tell you went over it several times, that was good work. I also see you skipped moving the chairs in the living room like we talked about. I’d give you an “A” for the hallway, and a “D” for the living room. Why don’t you try that again?”

And you do all that with a caring approach, rather than a critical approach.

The keys? Be specific. Notice effort. Correct errors. Never give empty praise. Empty praise leads to entitled kids who think little or no effort is enough.

So how do you handle the artwork conundrum?

“Tell me about your picture?”

“What do you think of it?”

“I can tell you put some work into this border, but I can’t tell what this is.”

Be specific. Notice effort. Correct errors.

Let’s build positive self worth in all our kids.

Longtime Sandy resident Dr. Dave Wenzel is a parent, a professor of counseling, and a Licensed Professional Counselor. He works with children, individuals, families and couples. His office, River Ridge Counseling, is located in Sandy. He may be reached at 503-803-0444 or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .



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