Am I Raising a Praise Junkie?

by Kaly Sullivan
Originally Published: 

I could tell by the look on my son’s face and the way he was biting his bottom lip that he was holding back a smile. He was pleased with himself. He nodded his head in all the right places, said all the right things, and was attentive and polite.

Just like I taught him.

Later he declared his love for this process. “I like being such a good student. Especially at teacher conferences when I get so many compliments.”

He wasn’t bragging. He was very earnestly buying into the rewards system that his environment was providing, and I was right there with him nodding, feeling proud, and patting my own back for being the parent that sends a child to school who is “a joy to have in the classroom.” My son carefully culled his gold stars, because it felt really good to be praised.

I wondered, “Am I raising a praise junkie?” Well, it takes one to know one.

It was a total coincidence that earlier that same day, I sat alone reading and journaling and working through my own relationship to praise. I was reading Tara Mohr’s book Playing Big, and I was having my own realizations about my reliance on positive feedback and how it might be inhibiting my growth instead of spurring it on. My son’s observation about the compliments he’d garnered landed on a scab that had already seen its fair share of picking that day.

I’m a praise junkie, and I always have been. As a child, I put on my best adult impersonation, acting independent and responsible, and learning to rely on praise to enforce how good and smart I was. As a student, I consistently received high marks for my studies and in conduct. In my career, I want desperately to be acknowledged and liked. It’s not just that I like to be praised. I need to be praised. It is what fuels me.

I’ve always been willing to do the work with the unspoken agreement that on the other side I will find a hint of success, a hit of approval. Just one little pat is all I need to keep going. These hits come in different shapes and sizes. It could be, “Great job!” from a boss, client, or a teacher. It could be acknowledgement for unloading the dishwasher. It could be the Likes, Hearts, and Tweets that I check compulsively.

I was in a yoga class recently, working towards the right alignment in a certain pose, all the while thinking, “Does the teacher see how well I’m doing right now?” His, “Good job, Kaly,” from across the room showed me that my hard work was indeed paying off.

Yes. It’s bad. I told you. I’m a praise junkie. And here was my extremely bright, likable child going down the same approval-seeking road.

But as Mohr points out, this behavior is more limiting than we might realize. When we are “hooked into praise,” we allow it to define our own worthiness and talent. And to be instruments of positive change, we need to “influence authority figures, not just please them.”

Reading Mohr’s words, I realized how much rehabilitation I need to break these long-ingrained habits. Every chapter is a medicine I have to pinch my nose to choke down. I flinch and shift against her anti-praise sentiments. That’s how I know I need rehabilitation badly.

I’m left wondering, “What is a parent to do?” I want to instill in my children respect for themselves, their peers, their teachers, their parents, and other adults in their life. And often with this kind of respect comes praise for being polite, well-mannered, and self-aware. My husband and I take a lot of pride in our children’s ability to handle themselves in many different types of social situations.

But I don’t want to mold them into little praise-seeking robots. I don’t want them chasing gold stars, seeking external validation, and in 20 years finding out that they too need rehab from the cycle of compliments they’ve come to rely on.

How do we, as Mohr says, “unhook from praise” so that we’re not raising kids addicted to it as they enter the real world? In an educational system that rewards benchmarks, performance, and being a “good kid,” how do we make sure that we’re not raising little approval addicts?

When my son brought up how much he liked the compliments, I did not know what to say. I had one of those parenting moments that you know in your heart is an opportunity to plant a seed, but your head won’t get out of the way. And so I said nothing. Here is what I wish I had said:

My dearest son. You are an amazing person for many reasons. You bring joy, empathy and compassion to everything that you do. You are a unique combination of funny and kind, and I never want you to lose those things because they make you you. A person is not a collection of compliments. You are not what other people see or don’t see. I want you to do your best, but more important, I want you to be yourself even when that seems incredibly hard or even impossible.

To which he would probably have replied, “Can I have dessert?” Regardless of whether he gets it or not, my rehab from praise addiction must go on with the hope that it will someday pay off. I believe that with a little awareness we can find the sweet spot between the “Great jobs!” and defining ourselves by them.

And even though I really want you to tell me what a good job I am doing as a parent, I’m not looking for your praise or your feedback. Not anymore.

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