Even though I’ve seen the studies on how too much praise or the wrong kind of praise is bad for our kids, I can’t help but give my kids a pat on the back when I think they’re doing good. I try to avoid the big, bad sweeping compliments that are supposedly detrimental, like “you’re so talented,” or “you’re so smart” (though, admittedly, that one slips out pretty often) when they take out the trash. But as far as I’m concerned, a little positive reinforcement never hurt anybody. In fact, because my kids are still so young, sometimes I praise myself the way I praise them just because I like (and deserve) a pat on the back from time to time.
Maybe it’s because I’m a Millennial, part of a generation that grew up on praise and helicopter parenting, but I've often wondered why I like being praised so much. I respond well to being told I've done a good job on something, or at least I did as a kid. I like having my efforts recognized and praised, and I always have. I see no problem with getting a gold star when you've done something good. But the day-to-day of raising kids is sorely lacking in gold stars, and as a stay-at-home mom, my kids aren't exactly doling out praise for the things I've accomplished that day. (Also, what kid notices a beautifully folded stack of laundry or recognizes when I've poured the perfect cup of coffee?) My husband will sometimes take note if the house is particularly clean and he'll thank me for it, but otherwise there is no “Hey, great job making sure no one broke their nose today!” (Even though I stopped that from happening, like, nine times).
I figured if no one else was going to give me the praise I so rightly deserved, maybe I could just give it to myself. I spend so much time praising my kids for all of their efforts, but I rarely recognize my own, let alone praise myself for the things I've done that day. Sometimes I feel that motherhood can be a pretty thankless job, but that doesn't mean I have to derive myself of the acknowledgement of a job well done when I know it's a job well done (because I did it). A few gold stars certainly wouldn't hurt too much, right?
The rules of this experiment were simple. Give myself praise the same way I praise my three kids. Here's how it went:
Most of my days are spent running back and forth from task to task totally swamped with things to do, but I'm always unsure of exactly what it is that I'm doing or what's making me so busy. When I was on the lookout to praise myself, however, I found that I was really productive: I just have three kids that make it look like I'm not. One area that always goes unnoticed? Laundry. I do it every day. Sometimes three loads of washing, drying, and folding in a single day. I sometimes let my kids help put away their folded clothes, and when I do, I make a point to tell them what a good job they do. I tell them things like:
Oh, look how nicely you kept the clothes folded.
Thank you for helping keep the house clean by putting your stuff away.
Normally laundry is one of my least favorite jobs, and I'm always internally complaining about it, but I felt surprisingly chipper about it when I was telling myself I was doing a good job. I told myself:
Look at all those clothes you folded so nicely. Marie Kondo would be proud of you.
While it felt a little weird to compliment myself out loud, it did make me feel better about the mountain of laundry I had to fold. So often I simply rush through all my work at full speed without stopping to enjoy the moment when I finish a task. There's something to be said about enjoying (and praising) a job well done. It really makes the work feel more fulfilling. Even when it's laundry.
As I looked for ways to praise myself the way I praise my kids, I realized I praise them A LOT. I praise them for getting dressed in the morning. I praise them for brushing their teeth. I praise them for eating their breakfast. Basically anything that gets us closer to getting out the door and to school on time in the morning deserves excessive praise. I don't consciously try to praise them, but the positive reinforcement has become a part of our daily routine.
It made me wonder: Am I praising them too much for telling them how good they are doing when they're simply getting ready for the day? I felt ridiculous telling myself good job for putting on pants and brushing my teeth and brushing my hair. I mean, yes, it's hard to get up and get moving every morning, but maybe I need to dial it back a little. Come to think of it, my son does sarcastically say "I know" a lot when I tell him how well he brushes his teeth or how well he dresses himself. I realized that once habits are set, the praise becomes overkill. Not to mention, I knew how he felt. I knew I was doing a good job. Did I really need to say it?
One of the areas where I am constantly doling out praise is around my kids' eating habits. Whenever my kids eat healthy food, or any food with remote nutritional value really, I am quick to jump on the praise-wagon. I tell them how proud I am of them for eating, mostly because they never sit through a meal and rarely eat anything good for them. But how good of an example do I really set for them?
I realized that I had trouble praising myself when it came to eating, because I don't sit down and make sure I eat balanced meals. I get so caught up making food for everyone else that I forget to feed myself. On day three I realized I made it well into the afternoon and had consumed nothing but tea. No wonder my kids struggle with mealtime when they never see me included in sitting down and eating with them. From here on out, I made sure to sit down and eat the food I was serving to them with them.
I told my son good job for eating his banana muffins, and he told me good job back, which made me laugh out loud. He must have noticed me praising myself and thought he should join in to boost my confidence. Perhaps I could use a little more self-encouragement when it comes to taking care of my physical needs.
I decided to go above and beyond on day four and make an easy, impossible to screw up Crock-Pot meal that had been sitting on one of my Pinterest boards for months (possibly years). I was so excited and praised myself a little preemptively for such a wonderful plan for dinner. However, when dinner rolled around and I lifted the lid off my Crock-Pot, the smell alone told me something had gone horribly, horribly wrong. I'm not sure if it was just a bad recipe or I had messed up something along the way, but the end result was definitely not edible. I was so disappointed in myself and mad that I had to give up my dreams of an Instagram-worthy dinner in favor of spaghetti.
But then I thought about how I would praise my kids for trying something new, even if it didn't work out as planned. I knew immediately what I'd say to them, so I fed myself those same lines:
It's your first time trying this, and it's OK if you didn't do a good job. Next time you'll do better. What matters is that you tried something new.
Oddly, it calmed me. It was OK that I messed up dinner. It wasn't the end of the world. Was it a waste? Sure, but life would go on with dinner as planned (even if the new plan came at the last minute). If there's anything worthy of praise, it's stepping outside of your normal comfort area whether it's learning a new recipe or learning to ride a bike. I told myself it was OK to fail, because hey, at least I tried.
Since the previous day had left me wanting when it came to gold-star moments, I decided to do a little extra cleaning that had been sitting on my to-do list forever, and then praise myself accordingly. Usually when my son decides to go on an unexpected cleaning spree and make his room sparkling clean (or as close to sparkling clean as a 5 year old can get) I not only tell him what an amazing job he did, but I also dole out a little extra chore money. I want him to know the value of hard work, and this incentive seems to work well for him. He often tells me how much he enjoys working, even when his work is vacuuming a single room or making his bed.
So when I decided to deep clean the refrigerator, not only did I stand back and admire its cleanliness, I also got out a little cash for me to spend on my upcoming girls' night. Adding the money added an element of tangible value to my work, which I'm sure is how my son feels about his work as well. Even when I do get praise as a stay-at-home mom, it doesn't earn me a paycheck. Having that bit of cash for a job well done was nice, even if I was the one paying myself. It made me think I could get used to this praise thing.
One of the things I praise my kids for often is the way they treat others (especially each other) kindly and respectfully. Being nice to others is a big deal, and I am more than happy to praise them for their good behavior towards one another. It's hard to keep your cool and use your nice voice when someone makes you mad, and controlling your emotions definitely deserves a gold star. So when my daughter decided to CUT HER OWN HAIR, and I kept my cool, I praised myself excessively. Like:
You are the best mom ever, Gemma!
I didn't even yell. And I totally hid my laughter so she didn't see and think it was funny and decide to try it again. Gold stars for me. All the gold stars for me. Praising myself kept me very self-aware, so I was more patient and slower to anger. It turned what could have been a disastrous parenting moment into a lighthearted one. I was thankful that I had the praise to fall back on because, in a weird way, it really put the moment into perspective for me: was it worth freaking out over uneven hair we could easily fix and that will grow back just as quickly? No. So pat on the back for me, you guys.
Whenever my kids are really behaving well and I find myself praising them a lot, I'll take note and make sure I do something above and beyond lip service by taking them somewhere special for their extended efforts. Usually that means a trip to the ice cream shop or the local children's museum.
At the end of my praise-worthy week, that meant fancy cocktails and a night out with my girls. Even though I'm not sure that I did anything that was really that above and beyond what I normally do each week, praising my efforts made me feel like I did something worthy and special and deserving of a little extra attention. That feeling of being special and worthy of celebration is definitely something I need a little more of as a mother.
Did All That Praise Go To My Head?
Even though some of the praise I gave myself throughout the week was a bit excessive (I mean, brushing your teeth in the morning and at night is important and all, but it probably doesn't deserve a parade), I was feeling good about getting a little extra praise for my efforts, even if it was self-imposed.
I don't think there's anything wrong with feeling extra special, especially around the people you love. So at the end of the week, I still felt confident that praise was a good thing. I want my kids to know that I think they're wonderful for all that they do, and it would do me good to remind myself that I'm wonderful for all my efforts too.
I don't think my kids are worse for the wear when it comes to praising them. For me, praise is about positive reinforcement, instilling within them the values I find important. I understand why parents feel so strongly about praise, and the desire to dole out the right kind of praise because we all want to make sure our kids grow up strong and self-assured and ready for the real world. I don't want my kids to think I only value them when they are good or talented or smart. That is why I make sure I tell them, often, that my love is unconditional — no matter their behavior or skills or how clean they keep their rooms (though that certainly helps!).