I got the best college education in the world. It was not Ivy League or one of the Seven Sisters, but it was unique and as it turns out, even more unique in that it I actually remember everything I learned and I use most of it every day in my profession and personal life.

In a class called Buddhism for Social Justice (as taught by Ecofeminist scholar, Greta Gaard), I remember a lengthy discussion about the Buddhist concept of Egolessness as it related to women and feminism. It was posited that a Buddhist path is a tricky one for women and minorities because under the patriarchy, we are already undervalued and therefore undervalue ourselves as individuals and that a life of service is already ordained for us. We decided that it makes the most sense for women to first work on a healthy sense of ego (elf-confidence, boundaries) from a Western perspective before attempting to lose one’s ego on the Buddhist path. Without that, the Buddhist path could easily become another way to suppress women.

Why am I bringing this up?  Because I believe that children’s egos need to be built up as infants and toddlers and that the movement against parenting, while well meaning, with praise might be going just slightly too far. Especially in circles where it is an all-or-nothing dogma. 

child self portrait

My first at 2.5 Self Portrait

There is some very western, very “American” individualist dogma surrounding mainstream parenting; babies and children should fall asleep on their own/cry themselves to sleep, we shouldn’t hold them too much lest they be spoiled, they should be so “ready” for potty training that they basically do it themselves with little or no help or teaching. And now, children should develop a healthy sense of ego on their own, outside of relation to feelings and observations of parents and peers- as if we are not interconnected.

The movement against praise suggests that the inherent problem is that it focuses on what the adult feels instead of what the child feels. But because I teach Gentle Discipline as a path of modeling the world of emotions to our children, I know that feelings are first learned and understood through mimicry and modeling of empathy. And this is why I think that young children will learn healthy ego, self-love and confidence as they see themselves reflected in our experience of them, as well as in their experience of us.  

When the movement against praise goes too far, we are losing encouragement, we are losing terms of endearment, we are told to censor the sentiments of love and adoration that wish to spew forth from out parental hearts because we worry that the words we use might be somehow imperfect or damaging. We are also losing the concept of unconditional love that only a parent could possibly provide and that small children do not possess on their own. I wish I could say that small children come into the world with this but I know children too well. What is really true is they come into the world quite helpless, totally vulnerable, looking totally to parents for everything, including how and what to feel.

We know that too little interaction reduces brain growth. We know that talking to, singing to and reading to children encourages growth, specifically through language. And language is communication. Communication is survival and success. 

But the core of the anti-praise movement is on point. Nobody needs empty/repetitive praise like “Good job” every 10 minutes. And yes we absolutely do talk to much, to everyone. That easy way to sum up the buddhist principle or “right/correct speech” is “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” Much of the talking we do is not necessary and we need to be mindful of that because space and quiet are also ways children grow. 

And of course eventually, we need a healthy sense of ego that comes from solo effort and accomplishment and reflection. But the tiniest ones also need to start with not only encouragement from us but a little praise and a sense of unconditional love and adoration. Because it is likely we are the only place where that will ever happen for them. The outside world will deliver plenty of opportunities for challenge, ego-tear-down, the bullying, the constant critique. 

The Alfie Kohn-esque anti-praise movement has a lot to teach in its directions toward encouragement and effort, open-ended questions, self-reflection and so I am grateful to the movement for influencing a more mindful, thoughtful parenting.

But I refuse to lose “Good Job” (I just limit it so it doesn’t get old), I refuse to lose “you are beautiful.”, “That’s awesome.” “I love that painting!”, (but I sometimes say “What do you think about this picture you made? How did if feel to make it?”. I describe how my child’s actions positive or negative affect others. I describe how I feel about my child’s actions (“ouch, that really hurt, look at the tear in my eye.”) rather than asking “how did it feel to hit mama?”)  I do this because we are interconnected. We are a family and we effect one another, what we feel about each other’s actions and accomplishments matters.

We as parents are here to teach responsibility and to help build inner confidence and independence, but we are first and foremost responsible for teaching love and compassion. Compassion for others and self and being okay with sharing our feelings of love for another person are things we only learn through modeling and we learn them very, very young. We learn them before 2 years. We learn them before we can even comprehend questions like “How did it make you feel to finish that art project?.”

When I was first studying Buddhist thought and the concept of ego-lessness with regard to issues of oppression, I decided I would take the path really slow and not dive in to some sort of Bodhisattva service spirituality because I realized that I didn’t have enough of a healthy ego to tear down yet. Instead, I studied psychology and did a lot of work nurturing my inner child (and praising, praising, praising her artwork- and I was healed!) I just think many of us didn’t get ENOUGH praise in childhood.  Open-ended questions and thoughtful encouragement are activities of the mind. Praise of another being we love feels so organic, so much of the spirit, of the heart. I just refuse to lose it.

Talk to me about praise…….  🙂

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