The Ten Happiness Principles: #2

Continuing with Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Ten Happiness Principles, we come to number 2, Praise.

We don’t praise the good efforts of others enough.

We lift them, and in turn, ourselves when we praise something that someone else has done.

If we have an appreciative attitude to the blessing of life that we have been given, if we can awake and be thankful that we have awaken, surely we can be more attentive to those around us when they do something that helps us or helps someone and in turn show that we have noticed by praising them.

Obviously, praise needs to be genuine, but often being genuine only requires a change of perspective.

Just consider the last person you spent a few minutes interacting with. Had they done anything today that helped make your life easier or more comfortable or successful, or perhaps had you observed them do this for someone else.

If so, say so!

Praise is a boomerang!

The more we all try to give praise to others the more it will come back on us and in turn lift our spirits and encourage us to try even more to help others.

Appropriate and honest praise is important. So while praising others may bring us happiness, when it comes to praising our children, there are some important points to consider, as  Marnie Winston-Macauley points out:

Five Principles of Healthy Praise

The positive power of praise is well documented. As children grow, they need emotional feedback to mirror who they are. Praise is one way they learn about themselves. When they learn honest, specific positives, they develop confidence and esteem.

But lavishing general, over-reaching praise often has the opposite effect, setting the child up for unrealistic and fraudulent expectations. Telling a child: “You’re a wonderful, son,” “You’re the most honest person I know,” “You’re Mommy’s little angel,” “It’s always such a pleasure to be around you,” “You’re one great artist, writer, [fill in the blanks]. “You’re so smart, there’s nothing you can’t do,” they all sound like confidence boosters, but in fact, they land like “dares.”

These dares set up impossible standards. Parents may hope it’s true but our children know it’s not. After all, who could live up to such overwhelming kudos?

Praise is a lot like medicine. The right amount and type at the right time can restore and contribute to our child’s well-being. But too much of the wrong kind or given at the wrong time and we’ve got one sick puppy for whom the praise:

  1. is inaccurate and won’t jibe with his or her own self-view.
  2. raises anxiety as he feels like not only a fraud, but, like little David, one who may quickly lose his halo if he’s “found out.”
  3. could lead to impossible self-expectations. “I’m perfect or nothing,” then becomes the emotional compass.

So how can we praise without “punishing?”

#1: Praise realistic achievement specifically

“Thanks for helping me clean the basement. It looks like new,” or “You followed the recipe, and we all really enjoyed your cookies,” instead of “What a terrific cleaner or cook you are” telegraphs our children did a fine job, without raising anxiety by expecting them to be Bob Vila or Martha Stewart. Letting children know what they’re actually achieving offers a realistic emotional mirror. The message they hear? “My work really paid off! I did something new, and I can learn, listen, follow directions. It was fun, my family appreciated me. I feel sooo grown up and can’t wait to do more.”

#2: Praise proportionally

Proportion in any excellent recipe is critical. Too much sweet (praise) is as unhealthy as too much salt (criticism). Our child cleans her room well. It’s her job and her challenge. She deserves the simple, honest, recognition, not a marching band. We all want our children to own their real accomplishments, and not become “sugar junkies.”

#3: Praise in the here and now without prophesizing or readying your mantel for a Nobel Prize

In the Siddur we say each morning, “A person must always acknowledge the truth and speak truth in his heart.” Over-praising is a fundamental “untruth” and, despite well-intentioned praise, our children know they’re not deserving of all that glory. Not only do they feel the stress, they start to doubt themselves, and us. 

Ironically, hyper-praise can cause our children to either shut down, or become competitive at all costs. On the other hand, specific, proportional praise encourages children to believe in the value of a job well done.

#4: Helpful praise allows the child to infer the truth about himself and his character

Saying, “I really appreciate you telling me I gave you a five dollar bill instead of a one,” beats, “You’re always so honest!” by letting children get the idea – for themselves – that honesty is a positive quality, one they can and should continue as an ethical standard that is important, noted, and respected.

#5: Praise a good attempt, as well as accomplishment.

“Wow! An 85 in math. That was a tough test. And I know you were worried about it. This grade shows you really put a lot into it and it paid off!” tells the child effort and perseverance are more important than instant success.

Useful praise supports positive reality, acts as an accurate emotional mirror, and lets the child develop self-knowledge and ethics. With these character traits, children can then grow and mature with true confidence – confidence they’ve earned, and confidence they can trust.  – see http://www.aish.com/f/p/How_to_Praise_Your_Children.html

I would argue that Marnie’s wisdom here can also be applied to our interactions with other adults.

We need to find the opportunities to give praise, but it must be honest, specific, proportional and an invitation to critical self-reflection, rather than a conclusion and end in itself.

Next: The Ten Happiness Principles #3

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