Q. My wife and I have two small children, ages 2 and 4. All my wife’s attention is focused on letting them know they are special. She praises them for every little thing, but she is critical of how I do things. Am I awful to want my wife to tell me “Good job” once in a while?
A. You aren’t awful for wanting praise from your wife. However, your wife’s conduct with your children might be creating what Alfie Kohn refers to as “praise junkies.” Kohn’s article, “5 Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job,” suggests that too much parental praise encourages children to look to others for approval instead of developing self-awareness of their feelings and accomplishments. You might suggest to your wife that you both read Kohn’s article.
While you could “blow off” your wife’s criticisms and seek your praise elsewhere—such as at work—that won’t make your home life better. Find a time when you can sit down with your wife and let her know that the criticism is hurting you. Perhaps your wife needs to hear praise as much as you do.
You could share with her some of the following suggestions for praise that tend to build self-esteem, self-confidence and self-awareness:
- Tell positive, praising stories about each other and the children to friends and relatives. Who doesn’t enjoy hearing or overhearing someone they love tell about something special or good they did? Create the story that you are in a family of “winners” who are amazing, and the story will become reality.
- When someone accomplishes a new task or does a good deed, instead of saying “Good job,” ask, “How did you feel after you accomplished that?” One object is to get the person to recognize they had feelings of pride or accomplishment for their extra effort or good decisions.
- Recognize criticism and try to find one or two good things to say to offset the criticism. Ask yourself where your criticism is coming from. Is lack of sleep, trying to do too much or a physical ailment bringing out your negativity? Have you gotten into the habit of being critical?
- Acknowledge what you like about how a child or adult did something, rather than saying a generic, “Good job.” Maybe you like the creative way they approached a problem or the enthusiasm they had for a task.
- Say “Thank you.” When you say, “Thank you for helping me with that task or chore,” it lets the other person know they are appreciated, which is a form of praise.
- Use “I need you to…” statements rather than “You never….” Example: “I need you to help clear the table after dinner. It helps me, but it also sets a good example for the children to help with chores.”
As parents, you and your wife have a lot on your plate. Every minute seems full of things to do. It’s easy to slip into using words that hurt rather than praise. Freud said it well: “Choose your words wisely, because with them you can send [one] to the depths of despair or to the heights of ecstasy.”
Betty Richardson, Ph.D., R.N.C., L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.
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