Q.Our bright, poised, mature and seemingly confident 8-year-old daughter has an extreme need for praise which seems unhealthy to my husband and me.
If we don't praise her, she will ask, "Did you hear my piano piece? Did you think it was good?"
Not only does she want us to praise her, but sometimes she can't bear to hear us praise anyone else, especially her 5-year-old brother. In fact she may sulk and even cry if we don't praise her, too, apparently because she thinks we don't believe that she's as good as her brother, even though she knows she can do almost anything better than he can.
This competition exacerbates the situation, but it doesn't seem to be the root of the problem.
My husband and I try to praise our children for the efforts they make, rather than the results they get, but perhaps we have praised our daughter too much over the years. What can we do to encourage her to do her personal best, without needing constant praise?
A.Praise can be tricky.
Too much of it can spoil a child and too little can stunt her self-esteem but it's really the type of praise you give that affects a child the most.
It's great to praise your daughter for the efforts she makes -- rather than the blue ribbons she wins -- but she really needs your attention more than anything else. If you don't have time to give it, she may think that she's not all that important, and if she asks you if her piano playing is good, she may think that results matter more than you're willing to admit. If that's the case, you and your husband should look at your work schedules to see how you might cut back on your hours so you can give more attention to the children. The extra time you spend with them will praise them better than anything else.
You also want to ask your daughter to teach you about specific movements she makes when she plays the piano or how she manages to scramble an egg in the microwave. Any interest you show in her activities will be another sign of praise.
You and your husband need to do some teaching, too.
This may come as a surprise, but the middle years -- the ones between 6 and 12 -- are marked by a need to learn the skills of life at least as much as the skills of school. While reading, writing and arithmetic give a child the tools to live and work in today's world, the how-to skills of life give her the competence, and the confidence, to get along without needing much praise at all.
This, then, is a plea to you, and to all parents, to teach your children every skill that you enjoy -- so they will enjoy them, too -- and to refine these jobs a little more each year, so they will learn to do them well and to be appreciated for it.
The 10-year-old who can do her own laundry, make a Mediterranean salad for supper, rewire an old lamp and hang pictures on the wall without chipping the plaster will be able to give herself all the praise she needs.
If your daughter's behavior continues to bother you, however, talk with her teacher to see if she needs extra praise at school, and if she does, you'll probably need a half-dozen sessions with a family therapist to help her get rid of her insecurities or to reduce the competition between your son and your daughter.
Of all the books on this subject, "Siblings Without Rivalry" by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (HarperCollins, $13) is probably the best. Or for other books to build self-esteem, read "The Power of Positive Talk" by Douglas Bloch with Jon Merritt (Free Spirit, $16.95) and "Loving Without Spoiling" by Nancy Samalin with Catherine Whitney (McGraw-Hill, $14.95), which are excellent.
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