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The Good Girl Curse

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In the last few decades parents in many parts of the world have followed the positive parenting path, constantly showering kids with praise. For many, giving praise has been like a nervous tic:

“You finished your meal. What a guy!”

“That’s the best work I’ve ever seen!”

“You’re such a clever girl!”

As I wrote in my book Thriving, most parents are well-versed in the notion of giving praise but have we gone too far? What are we praising kids for? What do kids think about praise?

Author Kasey Edwards recently highlighted the Good Girl curse, where the use of excessive praise by parents can lead to compliance in girls. She claims parents use praise to socialise girls to be ‘good, enabling girls’ rather than ‘competitive and capable of realising their dreams.’

While I agree that the phrase ‘Good girl!’ is cringe worthy, praise by itself doesn’t a compliant girl make.

Let’s face it, kids respond to positive feedback. Not only do they need their pro social behaviours to be reinforced, but they use the comments of significant adults (read parents) to help form a picture of themselves. “Mum says I’m pretty clever....... yep there must be an element of truth to that!” Kids then measure their parents’ comments up with the reality.

“So if mum says I’m clever and I do some pretty clever things then I must be clever” thinks a child who is forming a picture of himself and how he relates to the world.

So praise or positive comments have their place! But gender and age play a part.

Children under the age of 5 usually like their parents to praise the results of what they do. Developmentally, they have difficulty separating themselves from what they do. “Mum says I’m a good little reader so I must be good!” Sort of makes sense from a developmental perspective. Obviously, this needs to be tempered with reality and also balanced with some genuine feedback lest Mr & Miss Under 5 grows up thinking that everything, including them, is just wonderful!

The older kids become the more they prefer effort praise, also known as encouragement, from parents and teachers. That is, give less praise about the results of what they do and focus more on their effort (“You’re trying hard.”), improvement (“You can spell more words now than you could at the start of the year!”); and their contribution ( ‘That was a great help to your team.’).

It seems that the emphasis parents and teachers place on results just increases the pressure on kids, so they end up taking less risks as learners to avoid failure and disappointing their elders. So the message from your child may well be – focus on the processes of what I do, rather than the results! 

Girls and boys can respond differently to praise. Boys generally prefer their praise to very private. Smart teachers know that it’s best to whisper praise in a boy’s ear rather than shout “Top Job!” across the classroom in front of his mates. Boys just don’t want to stand out and one way to make a boy stand out is to praise him in front of his peers.

As a former teacher, it’s obvious that many girls don’t have this aversion to public praise. They usually love it until they become teenagers and then you need to go private as well with your positive comments.

Personally, I think the development of self-praise is the best strategy for kids of all ages. Cue them to self-praise by saying, “Well, what do you think about that?” Challenge negative responses (“It’s crap!”) and help kids be realistic appraisers of what they do. You don’t want kids' self-esteem to be dependent on what you think of them. This is the risk you run when you overpraise children.

Kids also need feedback when their efforts and results fall short of acceptable. Some kids can accept feedback as long as it is accurate, fair and reasonable. Others prefer their feedback to be wrapped around praise. It keeps their fragile confidence levels up. Say something positive (“Your writing is going well!”), give your feedback ("You need to work on maths! Let’s take a look....”), and finish with something positive (“I love your positive attitude!”) is the trick for kids with very fragile self-esteem.

What about the use of praise for raising compliant girls? Well, it depends on what you praise them for. If you want assertive, strong young women then it helps to surround them with suitable role models. It’s also helps to highlight their assertive, strong-minded behaviour so that girls grow up thinking that those qualities are valuable, and that they can possess them if they wish. What parents focus on with kids usually expands, so think carefully about children’s attributes that you focus on.

On the other hand, some kids will develop certain attributes anyway..... whether in spite of you or because their siblings don’t have them. Yep, parenting is frustrating! You do your best, but don’t expect everything to turn out like you planned!

For more ideas to help you raise confident kids and resilient young people subscribe to my Happy Kids, my weekly parenting guide.

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