Praise Junkies

January 17, 2010 at 5:03 am 4 comments

Our Parenting on Track teacher Vicki Hoefle recently used the term “praise junkies” in one of our DVD classes.  I keep thinking about this concept, not just in terms of parenting but in terms of we grown-ups and our culture at large.

How would I define a “praise junkie”?  A child who needs to be constantly told she is doing a good job, or who needs continual feedback and acknowledgment on every thing he is doing, yes.  But also an adult who needs constant validation, be it verbal stroking or grades or awards or media attention or promotions or titles or what have you.

For me, I think I grew up as a “grades junkie” — I’ve blogged about this before, how I remember as early as first grade crying when I did not get 100% on a worksheet. Somehow I equated good grades with validation of my worth (though my parents did not push this, that I recall).  This continued all the way through graduate school, and the desire to get a doctorate, in some respects (I can admit now) to prove to myself and others that I was actually smart and capable.  Thankfully I realized that no external validation, even “the highest degree” in academia, would give me that — that belief had to come from within myself — and I consider myself much happier and more confident now that I am out of that never-ending cycle.

The classic overachiever is often defined as a student with stellar grades, lots of leadership activities, but average standardized test scores.  In other words, someone working very hard to show her talents though not necessarily inherently brilliant.  I’d say that was me.  In fact, when I was conjuring this blog I almost called it “Overachievers Anonymous” and had crafted a kind of 12-step recovery program for the likes of me and all those grad student/overachiever-types I knew and knew existed out there.

I ended up with the broader “Having Enough” theme, but the gist of this blog is still about striving to find ways to be motivated from within — deep within — and satisfied with things with true meaning, the internals rather than the externals.  And praise, in all of its forms, is intimately linked to these ideas I’ve been playing with here for two years now.

Early in parenthood, I read Alfie Kohn’s comprehensive study of and argument against praise (including rewards & punishment), and Po Bronson’s article on “the inverse power of praise,” as well as the intro to Elisa Medhus’ book, Raising Children Who Think For Themselves (all of these are listed in my Resources section).  I saw the light.  I understood that it is so much more valuable for a child’s self-esteem to learn to be internally motivated rather than externally motivated.  And, I’d argue, that goes for us grown-ups, too.  I vowed to work toward this internal motivation for my kids and myself, and I am still trying each day.

As I am poised to embark on homeschooling, one of the parts that excites me most is the opportunity to help our children discover the joy of learning for learning’s sake — not just to score an “A.”  Along the way, I am hoping to re-learn all kinds of content I have forgotten from school, because I was cramming it in to ace a test rather than really diving into it for the joy of learning it.  I see now how my cycle that began in first grade and began to end when I left grad school actually perpetuated itself — I learned less by focusing on external validation, and then I felt less smart so I craved more external validation.

Taking this down to the level of parenting small children, in practicing for our class we are seeing how easily the praise comes, and comes to be relied upon, even when we think we are aware. “Good job!” turns into, “What do you think of this, Mommy?  Do you like my drawing, Daddy?”  As Vicki would say, who cares what we think, what does the child think?!  Her recommendation is to question rather than comment on our kids’ work and efforts — instead of telling them our opinion of what they are doing, ask them what they are thinking about, learning, how they would do it differently, how they chose to do it as they did, etc.  In our program it is called replacing praise with encouragement, a much more effective way to truly connect with our kids and build their self-esteem.

We are working on this in our house, and it’s not always so easy.  We’re cracking ourselves up as we say to our daughter, “Love that painting, honey!  Er…. How did you choose those colors?”  Even after all my reading, the praise junkie in me was quietly reproducing itself in her.  It’s an insidious habit.  Our goal is to get to the point where it feels totally natural to question first, to listen to our kids first, rather than to tell, tell, tell.  We’re getting there.

Admitting I am a “praise junkie” is embarrassing, but worse would be to not admit it and to repeat the cycle with my children.  So much of the entitlement and lack of self-sufficiency often complained about with today’s teens and undergrads (which I saw every day when working at the university career center) stems from a broad, well-meaning but misguided cultural belief that constant praise would raise children’s self-esteem and send them into the world more capable and confident in their abilities.  In fact, it is looking like perhaps the opposite may be true.

I am hoping my children’s confidence will come from knowing themselves, doing for themselves, and being encouraged to take ownership in their lives.  Ultimately, my praise will not boost their confidence, not in any deep way, and it will simply be demanded over and over — just like all those A’s just seemed to make me think I needed to get more of them to be satisfied with myself .  My encouragement is what is needed, for them and for myself, as we succeed and fail and learn and grow.  It’s telling the difference between praise and encouragement that is the mission and the challenge.

So, we are learning together how to break the “praise junkie” cycle and try out something different for a new generation.  I think it just might work wonders.


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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Slawebb  |  January 18, 2010 at 12:35 am

    Love it! I mean how do you feel about the post you wrote? From one “praise junkie” to another, I appreciate that you wrote such a well thought out and direct post. I enjoyed it! 😉

  • 2. monika mraovic  |  January 18, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    We occasionally praise our girls just because we can’t resist, even though I read Alfie Kohn’s book. I grew up without praises (no, my parents didn’t read the book, they simply always wanted more and more from me) and to be honest, I craved sometimes some encouragement from them. I still seem to need some external validation although I am well aware of my strengths and the internal source of happiness.

  • 3. Megan Kajitani  |  January 19, 2010 at 11:23 pm

    Thanks, slawebb! I feel good about it, I’m used to putting it all out there after two years on this blog! 🙂

    And, yes, Monika, isn’t it so much about finding the balance place? The place where it feels natural to encourage without using empty praise, to boost our kids up without inadvertently holding them back? Always striving for that balance place… 🙂

  • 4. Sarah  |  April 11, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    I just happened upon your blog from The Race to Nowhere. I am really enjoying reading through your archives! Alfie is my hero and sparked change in how I parent.


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To spark conversation about redefining success (as individuals, families and institutions) and to counter "never enough" messages currently circulating in our culture.

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Megan Pincus Kajitani: Writer, Editor, Former Academic Overachiever and Career Counselor, Mom, Wife, Feminist, Gen Xer, Californian who believes that change is possible View Megan Pincus Kajitani's profile on LinkedIn

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