The Truth Principal

Buy the truth and do not sell it; get wisdom, discipline, and understanding. Proverbs 23:23

Ponderings on Giving Praise

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I have been reading Dr. John Townsend’s new book, The Entitlement Cure: Finding Success in Doing Hard Things the Right WayIt is excellent so far. As described in an earlier blog post, Entitlement Christianity, I am saddened by the entitlement culture that has also infected believers. It is evident everywhere.

In chapter 2, subsection entitled Praise and Reward Problems, he lists six problems that are worth thinking about.

  1. Praising what takes no effort.
  2. Praising what is required.
  3. Praising what is not specific. 
  4. Praising what takes an ability and creates an identity.
  5. Praising what is not based on reality.
  6. A lack of warmth.

These are all things we commonly do that can cause problems of entitlement in our children. Dr. Townsend suggests that rewards and praise are most effective when they focus on an achievement that took time and energy, and that involves the person’s character or internal makeup.

When a girl is praised for her beauty, she may infer that it is her beauty that gives her value, and therefore, if she loses that beauty, she may not be lovable.

If we reward or praise our children for what they are required to do, they will have no sense of duty or work ethic. This is also where they get the sense that they should be paid or rewarded in some way for every little thing they do, leading to entitlement. Praise should be reserved for the actions that go “above and beyond the call of duty.”

When we praise in general, non-specific terms, it is meaningless. Dr. Townsend compares these to empty calories. Our brains cannot make use of vague praise such as, “You are amazing!” Amazing at what?

As I was reading this chapter, I realized how important it is to focus praise correctly. Is your child an A student? Do you praise him for his good grades? If you do, he will come to believe his value is based in his grades. What is going to happen if a day comes when he hits an academic challenge and cannot make an A? What if, instead of focusing on the A, you focused on his hard work that got him there? “Son, I am so proud of how hard you work. Your diligence has really paid off!” Maybe he will then begin to value the character traits of hard work and diligence or perseverance. Do you see the difference? It’s subtle yet powerful.

When I was a little girl, we camped a lot. I remember during one camping trip, my dad rounded us up to go “mountain climbing”. We were camping near the Arbuckle mountains in Oklahoma. So we headed up one of the rocky hills. I was not a happy camper (pun intended)! I was afraid of heights and critters. As we neared the top, it began to rain. We had to head down the mountain quickly and carefully to get to safety. I was completely focused on getting down safely and my dad commented to me, “You’re a trooper!” That brief comment had a profound impact on me. Whenever I encountered difficulty and was tempted to give way to fear, I would think “I’m a trooper” and I would focus on persevering through the trial. What a gift that day was!

As an employer, my staff want to know when I am pleased with them. I find myself too often saying, “You’re awesome!” Although well intended, it is empty praise, too vague to be meaningful. Every Christmas, I write a short note to each of my employees. I try to identify something about them that I appreciate and I try to be very specific. I often hear that they value these words of encouragement almost as much or more than the gift that accompanies it. After reading this chapter, I realize they need a steady diet of these true and specific, character-based words of praise. So now I am trying to focus on specifics. I want both my staff and students to know what I value and appreciate about them.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.  

Philippians 4:8


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