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Parenting Tips: Praise Can Be Bad; Lying Is Normal

Aug 27, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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Author Po Bronson believes that kids today hear too much praise — much of it unearned. A couple of years ago, he wrote an article for New York Magazine on the subject, detailing how praise does not, in fact, lead to self-esteem and achievement as many parents seem to believe.

"Children today hear so much praise that they have decoded its real meaning," he explains to Robert Siegel. "When kids fail and all we do is praise them, there's a lot of duplicity in that, and kids begin to hear 'Nothing matters to my parents more than me doing great or me being smart,' and failure becomes almost a taboo subject."

Bronson expands on the subject of praise — and other child-rearing issues — in his new book NurtureShock, which he co-authored with Ashley Merryman.

He says he first became aware of the issue of overpraise as the coach of his son's kindergarten soccer team: "Until that point, I was telling the kids constantly, 'You're great, you're doing well' — even when they were dribbling the wrong way on the field."

But once he read the research on the praise, Bronson says, he decided to change the way he spoke to kids. Instead of offering praise indiscriminately, Bronson focused on saying things that the kids would perceive as sincere.

"Over time, I learned to let kids develop their own judgment about how well they had done," he says.

In addition to praise, Bronson and Merryman also tackle the subject of why children lie — and what parents can do about it. Lying, Bronson says, is a normal part of development.

"Almost all kids will experiment with lying at least by the age of 4," he explains. "We should expect all children to attempt lying. The question is, 'What do we do with it over time?' "

Bronson advises parents not to threaten lying children with punishment: "It turns out that increasing the threat of punishment only turns kids into better and more frequent liars," he says.

Instead, he recommends that parents pause children in the moment before they suspect a lie may be coming and say, "You make me really happy if you tell me the truth."

As for teenagers, Bronson says the best way to discourage lying is to set consistent rules, but to leave the door open to some negotiation.

"We're raised on this idea that 'no must mean no' ... but when [children] are older, we need to see that some arguing with parents is actually a good thing — not a bad thing," he says.

"[Teenagers often feel that] they have two choices: telling you the truth and leading to an argument, or just outright lying. Arguing over the actual rules is a better alternative and a very different thing than arguing over your authority as a parent to set rules," Bronson says.

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