Value Versus Flattery

When my children were growing up, I believed in positive reinforcement. In fact, I used positives more than was actually good for them. Only when my daughter became too preoccupied with her looks, did I realize that I had promoted an empty value. It was especially detrimental when I would say something like: “You are so beautiful. I am so proud of you.” Not only had I emphasized one of the less important qualities to my child; I had added the burden of my pride. Who would want to disappoint one’s mother?

This habit was not curbed easily. Years later, I assured one of my grandchildren that he was brilliant. Before kindergarten was over, in fact, he was selected for the gifted and talented program. True, he had promising gifts. To his (and my) amazement, however, those gifts did not guarantee that he was going to master all intellectual tasks with ease. When a subject proved challenging, he had a tendency to quit — mid-stream. He had missed the value lesson about the pleasures and benefits of hard work. Only now, as a young adult, does he understand that he must put forth the effort required in order to achieve.

Learning opportunities impelled me, then, to consider new ways of thinking and of communicating. I learned that two important considerations must be addressed. The first is to remember that persistence and genuine effort usually matter more than one’s IQ or talent. It is one thing to be born with gifts. Such gifts deserve thanks and humility. What one does with a gift, however, counts far more than the number derived from an IQ assessment.

The second consideration is to make certain that ownership of the achievement belongs to the individual. If someone does something well, it is that person who has earned the good feeling. Another’s pride counts very little. The question to ask is, “What do you think about your achievement?”

What does this lesson mean? It means replacing “You are so smart,” with “You are thinking.” It means changing “You are so talented” to “You did a good job on this math problem.” The following comparisons offer additional examples of encouragement that promote intrinsic growth and genuine self-esteem.

Instead of                               Say. . .                                   

I’m proud of you.                   You must feel good about …

You’re my favorite!               One thing I love about you …

This is too hard for you.       Give it a good try. Do your best.

This is too easy for you.       Give it a good try. Do your best.

Hit a home run!                     Have fun playing ball.

Don’t waste your time.         Hang in there. Stick with it.

Be a good boy.                      You are responsible for yourself.

Next time – get all A’s.         You seem to enjoy learning.

Do it right.                             Make good choices.

You are always good.          Doesn’t it feel great to get the job done?

Am I proud of my children and grandchildren? Oh, yes! I remind myself that their accomplishments are theirs. The children and grandchildren are on their own paths. They have their own challenges and their own glorious moments. I love them enough to let them relish their wins…or their losses.


In addition, I love my grandchildren enough to recognize the internal value of their effort. When an individual knows he has worked hard, has persisted, and has given a task his best effort, his self-appreciation grows from an intrinsic source. Perhaps only the person who strives to improve reaches true achievement.

I enjoy your comments and questions. Suggestions are welcome.