Is there a right way to praise your children?

Many years ago, when I was studying at Drisha, a women’s yeshiva in New York, I was involved in a traditional women’s tefillah (prayer) group. During our services, women would chant from the Torah, and there was some controversy over whether we were halachically permitted to recite the bracha (blessing) over the Torah reading.  I asked the Rabbi at Drisha to advise us in our decision.

“Rabbi,” I asked. “May women make a blessing when publicly reading from the Torah in a women’s tefillah group?” He appeared to consider the question for a moment. “Yes,” he said wryly, “That’s certainly the main problem facing Jews today – people making too many brachot.”


I was reminded of this exchange recently, when I came across two separate pieces in the NY Times this week reporting on the dire consequences of too much, or the wrong kind, of parental praise. The first piece, “Too Much Praise is No Good for Toddlers” in the Motherlode blog, cautions parents against praising children’s performance. According to blogger Jenny Anderson, performance-based praise is “like crack for kids: Once they get, they need it, and they want more. And the real world doesn’t praise them for getting dressed in the morning.” The second piece, Boomer Parent’s Lament, suggests that recent college graduates are particularly ill-equipped to handle the sour economy because of the amount of praise their parents heaped on their accomplishments throughout their childhood. In the midst of this crisis, “you can’t remind them how special they are,” Timothy Egan writes,  “because that was part of the problem.” (emphasis mine.)


“Yes,”I thought, just as wryly.”That’s certainly the main problem facing families today. Parents saying too many nice things to their children.”

I agree that children love and seek out praise  (though as much as an addict craves crack? That I’m not so sure about.) It’s something I see constantly, but especially  at the Shabbat table when, after the traditional blessing, my husband and I share something specific from the past week that we are especially proud of. Yes, the girls beam with pride after our recognition, and yes, they remind us with urgency when we forget, but no, I don’t believe this means they will be unable to succeed in the absence of a personal cheerleader. Rather, I think we’re giving them what a former mentor once called “money in the bank.” When no one’s around to tell them what a good job they just did, or how talented they are, they’ll be able to make a withdrawal from the many deposits my husband and I made to their positive sense of self.


At the same time, I believe the model of the traditional shabbat blessing provides an antidote to some of the potential risks posited by the two articles. First of all, by invoking God, we remind our children that there is a ever-present source of unconditional love and support. Second of all, by wishing that our boys be like Efraim and Menashe, and our girls like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, we remind them that we expect them to constantly grow  – that they have many wonderful qualities, but also have many more to develop. There’s always room to grow. Growth that’s not about what grade you get, or what trophy you bring home, but your middot, your values and how you walk through the world.

This is why I was surprised to come across an modern, alternative parental shabbat blessing in Anita Diamant’s book How to Raise a Jewish Child. The new version, by Marcia Falk, urges children to “be who you are”, rather than invoking our ancestors. Perhaps I misunderstand Falk’s intent, but to me, this version smacks of some serious hubris. Are there any children who are so perfect and so complete that they need not emulate our ancestors in any way? While I’m sure this new blessing is no more dangerous than the “wrong” kind of praise, I question the motivation for this new, improved version when the traditional fits the bill.


In the end, I do agree that constantly fawning over your child’s every little achievement might not be in his/her best interest. Does that mean I regret applauding wildly the first time Ella wrote her name, or practically throwing a party when Zoe made her first poop in the potty? Absolutely not.  I’m crazy about my children, and  I want them to know it. I’m not willing to hesitate before complimenting them in order to consider Anderson’s advice (tone: encouraging, but not celebratory; words: carefully selected to concentrate on effort, not output.) If the worst thing my child has to say about me on the therapist’s couch is “she praised me too much”, well then, mea culpa.

Shavua Tov.

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posted October 30, 2011 at 12:14 am

Thanks for posting this! I know many parents are feeling a little thrown by these latest articles (“first praise is good, now its bad, what give”). At the same time, this new research on praise supports something all of us parents know in our hearts – our children look to us as guides to how to live in this world – and what to value. I often think of praise as shining a light on a kiddo highlighting “look here – this is something of value – keep it up!” When a kiddo does something/says something we want to praise, how we word the praise tells them what part we value. A five year old runs to you with a drawing. “Wow, what a great picture” says we value the quality of the picture. “Wow, you’re a great artist” says we value their great art ability. “Wow, look at the blue up here, and then the red strokes. You worked hard at this” or “you had so much fun making this” says we appreciate what they are doing and we value their effort/enjoyment/etc.

That’s way letting kids know we value things they can control more than innate ability is so important. “Wow, you’re so smart” says we value being smart. That may be the case – but what do we value more, being smart or working hard? Because almost every action a kiddo makes has several levels to praise, and the one we choose is the one the kiddo is going to focus on as the one we value more. In the results from one of the actual research studies, children chose easier puzzles when they had previously been praised as being smart (because being smart and getting it right was valued – and the only way to be sure to get it right was to make it easy), whereas children who were praised for their efforts chose harder puzzles because they were sent the message that effort was valued.

Now – that doesn’t mean always praising effort either. If a kid didn’t try hard, praising him/her for effort is empty praise and the kiddo knows it.

Another way to think of praise is to fill in this sentence in your mind with what you are about to praise: “I have judged _____ and deemed it good.” Because when you say “good job…” that is what you are saying. You have judged this and it has met your qualification of good. Do we really want to send the message that we are judging so many aspects of our kids actions? Can we say “wow – you are jumping fast” instead of “wow – you are a good jumper.” Can we say “You rock for sharing your toys just now!” rather then “you are a good sharer” (especially if he really isn’t good at sharing!)

And then when we do bring out the “good” qualifier, its on qualities they they can control and get better at if they wish. Being careful about when we bring out the “good” qualifier also sets high expectations for our kiddos and tells them that we believe in what they can accomplish with their own effort.

At the same time, I am constantly catching myself saying “good job” to my 4 year old – its such a part of how I was raised and the current culture in which I live. As parents we often try to get everything right – and worry about praising correctly is just one more thing to judge ourselves on. So I don’t think its worth worrying over. But I do think its worth being mindful of.

Just some thoughts!

– Karrie

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Jen B

posted October 30, 2011 at 12:23 am

Exactly! I’ve heard lately, not to praise kids for things that are “normal” for them to do – no need to say “Good job!” to a 3-year-old every time he goes on the potty, if you wouldn’t say it to your 8-year-old. Instead, say, “Yay, you went on the potty, you are so three!” Because we all seem to need to say SOMETHING!! And then save the oohs and aahs for new accomplishments and for special times and activities – like a moment of unusual kindness, or like written above, the weekly blessings of our children.

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posted October 31, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Great post, Amy.

The “be who you are” bracha reminds me of the wedding vow that changes “as long as we both shall live” to “as long as we both shall love.” In other words, hey, when marriage gets hard or boring, we’re done, bye, no harm no foul. Um, no. Being a mensch — whether you’re a kid or a grownup — is about TRYING, knowing you can do better and being willing to put in the work.

Kids should know that we have high expectations for them and that we want them to have high expectations for themselves. Sure, praise the first potty poop or the first time writing their name! That’s an accomplishment! But cheering for EVERY poop and every piece of writing is icky — that way entitlement and brattiness lie.

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Rabbi Riqi Kosovske

posted November 7, 2011 at 8:23 am

wonderful Amy. Thank you.
btw in my Shabbos blessing I have always invoked all 6 of the ancestors to emulate, rather than gender-specifize – I want my son to draw from the wellspring of all of their attributes, and perhaps particularly the women’s – and I add my son’s name to the last at the end – perhaps this embodies something what the new Diamont/Falk blessing above tried to intimate:
“May you be like Sarah, Rivka, Leah, Leah and Ruchel, Efraim and Menashe, and… Chanina.”

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Rabbi Riqi Kosovske

posted November 7, 2011 at 8:24 am

wonderful Amy. Thank you.
btw in my Shabbos blessing I have always invoked all 6 of the ancestors to emulate, rather than gender-specificize – I want my son to draw from the wellspring of all of their attributes, and perhaps particularly the women’s – and I add my son’s name to the last at the end – perhaps this embodies something what the new Diamont/Falk blessing above tried to intimate:
“May you be like Sarah, Rivka, Leah and Ruchel, Efraim and Menashe, and… Chanina.”

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posted November 18, 2011 at 3:42 pm

I like to differentiate between praise, which I think of as vague (e.g. “Good job!”), and encouragement, which is more specific and helps kids feel recognized for the effort they’ve made (e.g. “I noticed you didn’t stop until you got the job done.”), and reinforces a value. I like to use the example of a young child spending time on a a first drawing. S/he brings it to a parent/teacher and the adult looks for a second or two and pronounces, “Nice job!” The child then goes and draws more pictures, spending less time on each subsequent effort until a single streak is sufficient to get another “Nice job” out of the adult. If the adult had actually looked at the first picture, which took some time on the child’s part, and described what was on the page and the time it took, the child would know what was valued–the use of color, variety of lines and shapes, filling the page or using only a part of it and leaving lots of space around a central figure. The message is, “I’m paying attention to what you do and how you do it,” rather than giving you meaningless praise for doing something. It makes a difference.

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