03/19/2011 12:12 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Do You Substitute Praise for Parenting?

I was at the dog park recently and watched as a middle-aged man played with his young son and their dog. They were throwing around a ball and running back and forth. The dog and the kid returned back to dad, each with the same expression, awaiting the same response: "Great job!" And they got it every time no matter what they did.

It was pretty sweet, really, and I couldn't help but smile when the boy and the dog both got patted on their heads at the same time, but it made me wonder a bit about how we praise our kids and how we confuse unconditional love and unconditional approval.

A while back (in the early '80s) when I was just starting out, there was a group for women on the West Coast that was dedicated to the fostering of self-esteem and empowerment. These are good things... up to a point. But those were the times we were living in, and the terms were being thrown around like rice at weddings. Anyway, the women were told to use the word "yeasting" to imagine themselves growing full of their true "selves." Given what we know about the power of imagery and how words translate into physiologic responses, can you guess what happened?

Take a moment.

Are you laughing yet?

They developed yeast infections. I kid you not. Whether they had any real improvement in their self-worth, I can't tell you. No studies were done and no further reports were given.

Can We Praise Too Much?

Parents struggle with this issue all the time because somehow in our society we have transposed love and approval. We have been infused ("yeasted?") with the notion that if we don't praise and empower our children at every turn we are somehow failing them or burdening them with battered egos, poor economic futures and a long life of traumatic relationships.

Praising, which is a marvelous thing when it is merited and sincerely given, has become as freely distributed in the schools and playgrounds as cake at a birthday party. "You're so wonderful!" has become not just common, but culturally "requisite." Chic Hollywood moms show the world their baby bumps, or parade their infants as they breast feed for the paparazzi. It would seem that what we do has become less important than who sees us doing it and the image it creates for us. And the media surely perpetuates this.

Is this the same as love or as parenting? To answer that for myself, I had to backtrack for a moment and recall who we all are at the most elemental levels.

We are, first of all, sentient and aware from day one. Studies have indicated that babies are not only aware but have preference recall from while they were in utero.

In a study at the University of North Carolina, pregnant women read aloud "The Cat in the Hat" twice a day to their unborn children. A few days after birth, the newborns were outfitted with special nipples that let them signal their approval of what they were hearing. (This is based on the data that sucking behavior is a reflection and direct measure of interest.)

The newborns were then given the opportunity to hear a different story than they one they'd heard in utero. They quickly realized they could change the story by changing the speed of their suckling. They vastly preferred what they heard in utero. Not only that, but they preferred it the exact way they heard it: by their mothers as opposed to other females, read forward rather than backward.

Translation: Children are listening and watching and interpreting what we do, what we say and how we do or say it, even when we think they're just dribbling.

Secondly, we are all pack animals. We need to know we belong. That includes love, but requires more. In order to truly belong, we must be able to participate. This entails that we also know and follow the general rules -- what we can do, what we can't do, what we have to offer and where our place in the pack is.

Guidelines and standards, when used lovingly (and I can't overstate the importance of "lovingly"), are necessary for good character. It's the same as lifting weights for good bone density. If we never have to lift more than we think we can, we never will. We simply get weaker and weaker.

The third and perhaps most important is that we are all -- again, from our first breaths --hard-wired to seek safety. That is where parenting really comes in.

Safety is everything to a child. It allows him to grow, to question, to create, to make mistakes, to actually become empowered, to learn and finally to understand the workings of the world so he can function and build new relationships outside the family.

Unconditional praise or approval is, by definition, the absence of limits, standards and expectations. And if there are no limits for a child, there can be no safety.

The problem is that, like poor Ali McGraw in "Love Story," we think love means never having to say, "I'm sorry," or, "Please don't do that," or, "That was wrong." Love often means precisely the opposite.

Children who are raised to think it's all "okay" and that they're "just wonderful," no matter what they do, are given a message that is actually contrary to our best intentions and their deeper needs -- that they are limitless, constantly central to whatever is going on and always right. All of this breeds the very thing we don't want: narcissism.

For more intuitive children, it also resonates as a lie. I remember one young girl when I worked at an elementary school. Her mother wanted her in the school band. She bought her a brand new, expensive violin. She hired a private tutor. She became her daughter's greatest cheerleader. But the child had no interest and no pitch. She used to come crying to me in my office that she wanted to quit, that she couldn't do it. But her mother insisted that she could be anything she wanted to be, that she was terrific, that she only need apply herself a little bit more.

"I know I can't play. I can hear myself," the child told me. "Why can't she?"

Are Standards Punitive?

Standards of behavior don't negate love. They may very well help express it. The reality is we are not all created equal. We have equal rights under the law, but I know without a doubt that I can't play basketball. I can't fly a plane. I can't do neurosurgery. I'm not the same as you. You're not the same as me. We each have gifts. We each have deficits. That is what we all share. That is the true nature of our equality -- that we are not the same.

Children know this until they are taught otherwise. They see it from their first birthday party, their first foray into a playground, their first afternoon at daycare. Some kids run faster than others. Some speak earlier, some speak later. Some kids sing like angels from the time they can breathe. Other kids can see deep into the netherworld of mathematics, as if they were reading a milk carton. Some kids are born with the gift of compassion.

Whatever their gift, they usually know the difference between a brilliant performance and a lousy one. It's not just because we say so. They can feel it.

The issue is, how we walk them through the reality that already exists?

I remember one teacher from fifth grade. His name was Mr. Sperber. He was the strictest teacher in the school and he taught grammar. We all loathed it, all the diagrams and conjunctions, but we learned it. And we behaved. Granted, this was not the most creative or expressive episode of my life, but because of him, it was one of the most disciplined and important. I learned what I was capable of doing, even when I didn't "feel" like it. I learned respect and diligence. And I knew the pleasure of well-earned praise. When he said, "good job," he meant it. There were no effortless "atta-boy's" in that class. But when praise was given, it felt awfully good.

Just the fact that I remember him when I can't recall one of the other teachers in all those years of school is evidence enough for me of his impact.

Suzanne Brown, an economist and the mother of two grown boys (aged 20 and 25), felt that her kids needed her approval, and she gave it unstintingly when they accomplished something: "When Ben was little, and did something well -- be it put a puzzle together or kick a ball -- I would say, 'You must feel really great about that!,' or, 'Wow, how does it feel to get a 100 on your spelling test?'"

She added:

I think people become confident because they build on success ... It seems to me that parents often fail to recognize that parenting is about raising a self-sufficient, value-centered individual. It is not about how they look to the outside world, it is about how the children function in the outside world. As parents, we tend to think our kids need to make us look good, rather than we need to look good to our kids, and set examples for them to live by. I tell each of my boys that I am so very lucky that, of all the little boys in the world, I got to be the mom of the very best ones.

Approval and encouragement and praise are cause for joy. I love giving it. I love receiving it. And occasionally, I really need it. But it's not the same as the deeper need for love, which can be given unconditionally, wholeheartedly and needs no approval at all.

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