Why you mustn’t tell your toddler he’s amazing (too much) – and how you can do better!

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My grandson and I have a sleep-over night every week. We had a ‘thing’ going while Xfactor was on. We would watch and vote and guess who was going through to the next round. What I noticed most of all was the judges’ comments – while they often did give constructive advice (Danni was brilliant at this), all too often though, ‘amaaaaazing’ seemed to be the favourite complement – for almost every performer.

And it’s not only TV celebs who gush, ‘you are amaaaazing!’ It seems as though everyone is saying it, everywhere we go, especially parents.

It is perfectly natural to delight in every little thing your little one does – he is cute and funny and learning every single day. Babies and kids ARE amazing!  The experience of being a parent is, in itself, amazing. And we should never stop seeing being able to nurture a little being as anything other than amazing but we can do much better than telling a child ‘you are amazing!’

Although the occasional spontaneous, ‘Wow! What a clever kid!’ or ‘that’s amazing!’  won’t do any harm, when we dish out ‘amazing’ praise for every breath our little one takes we aren’t doing them any favours. We aren’t boosting their self- esteem and we aren’t recognising their efforts or their achievements.  It’s actually a totally meaningless label.  Above all, we run the risk of setting up a ‘great expectations’ trap. This can mean that, as your child grows, he feels he has to keep being ‘amazing’ to be accepted and loved. This can contribute to a fear of failure, which may mean that your child is so dependent on the approval of others that he may be afraid to try new things.

Positive praise

Instead of gushing, ‘Wow! what an amazing painting!’ it is better to offer realistic compliments: admire the bright blue sky or the very wiggly lines or tell your child, ‘What a lot of colours you have used, I can’t wait to hang this up on the wall.’

Another positive way to offer praise without overdoing it is a process called ‘mirroring’ which involves naming exactly what a child has done. By mirroring back to your child what he or she has done (‘You have climbed five steps on the ladder, all by yourself!’, ‘You sat very quietly while I was talking to the nurse’), you are giving them tangible evidence of their efforts, not just empty words that may or may not be believable to them. You can extend mirroring to include a quality: ‘You are so patient for letting me talk without interrupting.’ Other examples could be: ‘Thank you for remembering to shut the car door. That was very responsible,’ or ‘Good sharing, that is so kind.’ This helps nourish your child’s identity so that he will begin to think of himself as a genuinely competent person, seeing himself as kind, responsible, generous, helpful, funny, strong and whatever other positive labels you choose to describe his efforts.

This positive praise is far more powerful than ‘empty’ praise that can see your child undermined the first time another child says, ‘what a dumb block tower.’ Because your child will have tangible evidence that he really is competent, his self-esteem will not be dependent on constant recognition and he won’t crumple like a stack of blocks with the slightest hint of disapproval.

Another small but important caution about dishing out praise is to remember to notice your child being ‘good’. After nurturing a small dependent baby who needs your constant presence to keep him safe, when babies become toddlers we tend to leave them ‘be’ a lot more. While we don’t need to hover like a helicopter, it is good to ‘check in’ and top up that tiny emotional tank with a touch, some eye contact and kind words acknowledging your little one when he is playing happily. This way we will get more positive behaviour than if we ignore our child’s positive behaviour, but pounce and point out the smallest mistake – which could be an attempt to reconnect with you.