At the dinner table one evening, my son was interacting with his auntie. He was smiling and responding to her questions and it appeared that she was quite enamoured by him. Then she turned to me and ever so quietly said: “He’s adorable, such a good boy – but don’t let him hear me say that.”
I’ve been told many traditional Chinese believe that young people could be spoiled if you praise them too much, and speaking positive things about them would jinx them and they would end up being the opposite.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen adults and parents heap praises on their children or other people’s children. They would say: “Oh, you’re so wonderful!” or “You’re the best student on earth!” Perhaps they only wanted to build the child’s self-esteem and confidence.
But what is the right way? I don’t think there is a definitive answer but there are some things that I think work well.
I personally believe there is power in words. Our words carry weight – otherwise, they wouldn’t mean so much or hurt so much when used.
I still remember hurtful things said to me decades ago that have left a wound. But similarly, I also remember encouraging things said to me that have lifted me up. Words carry power and we can choose how to use that power.
Some parents have explained to me that they put their children down so that they will learn to be stronger and fight what is being said about them and end up being better.
So if you tell a child “you’re so lazy”, the hope is that the child will be provoked enough to prove you wrong and end up being hard-working.
But that’s making several assumptions – that the child hasn’t tried to work harder before, that they will be motivated by negativity, that they care enough to do something about it, and that the negative remarks will not ruin the relationship between the parent and the child.
Now I’m not sure if all these assumptions are correct.
Rather, I am certain that every child wants to succeed and do well. So rather than demeaning them and pushing them down in the hope that they will act to prove me wrong, I’d use words to tell them what potential I see in them and empower them to reach that goal.
But even in doing so, there are some ways of praising effectively.
1) Be specific. Instead of saying “that’s such a nice painting”, say, “I really like the colors you chose for this painting”. Being specific means more to the person receiving the praise.
2) Be honest. “Say what you mean and mean what you say,” as the saying goes. Being generous with praises doesn’t mean doling out praises even when you don’t mean them. Praise someone only when you mean it.
3) Help them internalize the praise. When your child does something well, you want praise them and want them to internalize it so that it becomes part of their character, and not just an act. So if your child helps you with a chore, you could say, “Thank you for helping me.” But saying “thank you for being so helpful” is a better option.
One point to the action as merely an action, but the latter makes the action a part of the person’s character and research has shown that people who have internalized the praise will more likely repeat the action.
We live in a competitive, high-stress world, and our children are living in it too. Children are more likely to doubt themselves than be overconfident. So let’s praise them well and help them soar!
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 28
Translation by John Chui
[Chinese version 中文版]
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