Q: On the topic of verbal praise that you discussed last week: I do try to compliment my child, but he seems to feel uncomfortable with the praise. He even acts up and misbehaves, as if he doesn’t want to hear it. Why can I do about this?
A: Parents often complain of children who have difficulty hearing praise and who seem to actually become irritated. These children feel that the praise is unnecessary or insincere. What can the parent of such a child do when he wants to compliment or praise him?
Initially, one needs to analyze why this child finds it difficult to accept praise. Is his self-esteem weak, and he feels that any type of praise is flattery? Parents need to analyze how they are expressing their positive sentiments towards their children, and how these expressions are being received.
If a parent is very specific in his praise to his child, there is less of a possibility that the sincerity of the parent’s words will be challenged. If a parent says: “When you ran to give the chair to Shlomo, you made him feel like a million dollars,” the child can feel the sincerity of these words, as his actual actions are being “recaptured.” This helps to validate the actual compliment. If we would say, instead, “You’re such a good boy,” these words might have less of an effect on a child, as the phrase is too general.
A parent’s praise has to also reflect the parent’s actual value system and what the child knows is truly important to him. If a parent doesn’t value getting 100s on tests, his getting excited about such a mark on a spelling test means little to his child, who knows intuitively that these words are “lip service” rather than heart-felt expressions of pride and admiration. Or a father who has not bought himself a suit in years compliments a child’s new clothing. What is the child to think? This is not to say that one should never compliment something that is not of important value to oneself. Sharing excitement and enthusiasm with a child can be a form of chessed. However, it is not the most effective way of building a child’s self-esteem, as he may sense that you care little about the subject at hand.
How should a parent respond when a child misbehaves after being complimented? Does the misbehavior cancel out the compliment? Again, would we like to lose a bonus that we earned at work because we happened to come to work late for two days in a row? We can understand pay being docked because we come late, but losing the bonus that we acquired for hard work seems to be a very unfair consequence. Thus, as parents, we have to refrain from statements such as “I thought you were a good boy. I guess that I was wrong.” The compliment for good behavior is well deserved. It doesn’t deserve to be taken away. A better response to such a situation would be: “I know that you’re good — you’re trying to fool me!” or, “You think I’m so silly that I believe this is really who you are!” A parent can also say: “A [insert family name] doesn’t behave this way. I’m really confused.”
Clearly, this is not the only possible response to a child’s misbehavior. Yet, the initial belief in the child is necessary to make the turn-around in behavior that much easier. “If I am actually a ‘good’ child, then what is going on here?” thinks the child. The transformation is that of someone coming back to who they really are.
After this initial verbal “reframing” of the negative situation, a parent does need to give a consequence, when necessary. The type of consequence needed depends on the actual misbehavior involved, as a child needs to see that there is an appropriate consequence to negative behavior. However, a parent has to truly believe in his child’s ability to mend his ways, and not say, “It’s okay. I know that you’ll do it 10 times again” — because a child picks up on a parent’s true feelings, and then does not believe in his own ability to change. Thus, we need to believe in the special abilities of every Jewish neshamah (even those of our children!)