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Can Praising Others Cause Harm?

Several months ago, we had a young lady in her teens visit our clinic from the States for an eating disorder. Over the four-year period preceding her visit with us, her weight fluctuated between 70 and 165 pounds.

During the course of her two-week stay, I was saddened to realize that her serious eating disorder was deeply rooted in a feeling of inadequacy that she believed began at a very young age. She was often praised and admired by family members for her attractive appearance and many talents. But regular praise inevitably led her to fear that people could judge her in a negative light with equal regularity should she ever not live up to their expectations, particularly those of her father.

Unfortunately, hers is not an isolated case among the many women and men I have worked with over the years. I think that most people would be surprised to realize how common it is for people to feel badly about their physical appearance, some to a point where such feelings can affect the ability to leave one's home without medication.

Why am I writing about this? Because I think that all of us need to be mindful about making comments about other people's appearances, especially when it feels natural to want to offer praise.

Here's what one of our newsletter readers, a teacher from the southwest, wrote about this topic in our blog several months ago:

When I was little, grownups would compliment me on my "pretty blond curls." Of course they didn't mean any harm, but lots of little comments can add up over the years. I have resolved to try to never comment about others' physical appearance, be it praise or criticism. Especially that of my students. It's none of my business what they look like, how they dress, or how they do their hair. I think commenting on someone's skills, talents or character is much more meaningful.

I would add that when making comments on another person's skills, talents, or character, it is still important to express our thoughts in a way that doesn't contribute to him or her feeling like they have to live up to a certain image.

When I look at my baby boy laughing and smiling, it's natural for me to want to gush about how cute and handsome he is. But my wife and I have decided that we must do our best to not make such comments. We want to happily say "you must be so proud!" rather than say "we are so proud of you!" We don't want to emphasize that we are proud of him, even though we are, as emphasizing our feelings may lead to him coming to fear us being disappointed in him in an unhealthy way.

Put another way, we want our son to draw his security and feelings of self worth from within, not from us. And we feel that this is a good wish for everybody we interact with in life.

If you have any thoughts on this topic that you would like to share, please feel free to use the comments section below. Thank you.


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HomeSchoolMom said...

I understand what you're getting at about praising people meaning they now have an expectation from you to live up to. But, I do think children need praise from their parents. I've never fully felt like my father is proud of me. Nothing I did merited his attention or praise. Sometimes, I feel like I'm still trying to do something good enough for him to notice (and I'm 48 years old). I think we can, and should, praise our children, but make sure to include comments like, "I love you, no matter what". We need to show them through our words, and our actions, that we accept and love them unconditionally, and that we are proud of who they are. That's what the father of the prodigal son did in the Biblical proverb that Jesus told us.
Tuesday, June 13, 2006 6:20:11 AM
Anonymous said...

Dr. Kim,
What you are saying is somewhat counterintuitive to everything that has been written, but I think its essence is brilliant! In a person's life there will always be some form of praise or criticism. If we as parents or role models can somehow instill in a child or influenced person the concept of self-monitoring, won't his or her self-worth and confidence be much more realistic, creating inner-direction vs. always seeking outer-direction?

I love your newsletters, Dr. Kim. Don't you think you're doing a great job?

Mary-Helen Whitney
Tuesday, June 13, 2006 8:25:23 AM
Theresa said...

I respectfully disagree with your stance on praise. I think much of how we see ourselves has to do with our own temperment. There were five children in our family, and each of us had a different temperment. My temperment was timid and I needed to have that extra praise. Academically, I have confidence, yet I have always felt that something was missing. I am 55 years old and I don't feel that I have a real talent in anything. I feel mediocre. I wish my parents would have helped me to find my talent and develop it. I always felt that my parents loved me and we had a great family, but I would like to have heard some words of praise from them. I think it would have boosted my self-esteem and my confidence in myself. I was the "good girl." My parents didn't have to scold me much, but I could have used a little more praise. It might have made a difference in my career and in my marriage. Because I never learned to stand up for myself, I am now divorced. I've had to learn some of those skills as an adult and it has been very difficult. Kids need to know that they have a voice and that they are important. Especially the quiet ones, the "good girls" or the "good boys." Praise can help with those feelings of importance.
Tuesday, June 13, 2006 10:26:52 AM
Priscilla Hudson said...


Interesting article. This is something that has come up several times lately and I wanted to share with you what I had noticed. A friend of mine felt like she was somewhat "warped" because her parents has put too much emphasis on being acknowledged where I had felt like I was not fully developed because I didn't get enough feedback from my parents. From what I can tell, no matter who it is, most people feel somehow that they didn't get "enough" from their parents (attention, the right attention, whatever), something was lacking in their approach. That's the truth for everyone. Regardless of what our parents do or don't do for us, somehow there will be a sense of lack that the child has to go "out in the world" to look for and somewhere during this journey will find that what he is looking for is within himself; that whatever his parents did or did not give him was just to set him on the path to himself. So love your child. Find the balance between praise and encouragement which will be an accomplishment since everyone is different and everyone relates differently so what your son needs may be more or less than what you need or are able to express. It's just life and we make of it what we perceive of it. Give him reason to perceive the goodness in life and to discern what would be best for him then stand back and watch him blossom. And it's okay to tell him that he's handsome; look into his eyes and deep into his heart and tell him so....he'll know what you mean and get the correct message. It's your intention. Love is all that matters. Give him your love and trust that he will be able to make the best choices for himself.

Good luck and have fun!

Best wishes,

Priscilla Hudson
Tallahassee, FL
Tuesday, June 13, 2006 10:31:18 AM
moorea said...

This entry reminds me of one of my favorite bumper stickers I have ever seen: "At _____ School, every student is honored." (a reaction to the "My child is an honor student at ____ School" or "My child was Student of the Month at _____ School.") I imagine that teachers and administrators at the school that boasts of every student being honored aren't interested in getting their students to compete to prove
who is smartest or fastest or most accomplished, but in getting them to love learning and to find their place in the world. Unfortunately, many schools seem to forget that every individual has something to give.

Also, I wanted to thank you for an earlier post (I can't figure out how to search your blog) on the topic, in which you described how a skin condition made you depressed and lowered your self esteem. I had thought that our society's obsession with physical appearance was a facet of sexism when in fact you have helped me see that it is a phenomenon apart from sexism (though I would still argue that it interacts with sexism and affects women in much greater numbers). Furthermore, strangely, I never connected the tendency to judge people on their physical appearances with the tendency to seek others' approval.
I agree with what Mary-Helen said that there will always be praise and criticism -- ironically, next to the blog entry about praising others is now the "Raves and reviews" section. Clearly, praising others has a more complicated role in our society than can be explored in a few paragraphs.
However, I believe in the idea that we can do our part to change the negative aspects of our culture by examining what we say to other people and acting on our reflections.
Tuesday, June 13, 2006 11:04:49 AM
Gombojav said...

Dr. Kim,

I feel that parents need to maintain a balance. I feel like never praising appearance or accomplishments is not maintaining a balance.

While I want my children to be confident in who they are, I do also want them to know that I think they are beautiful, bright, and special. I tell them often.

If a young lady does not feel she is affirmed by her father and doesn't know that her father thinks she is beautiful she will look for someone who will tell her how lovely she is. Being affirming and full of praise for a child can protect them.

I know that in my life, it didn't matter if other criticized me or my accomplishments so much--because at the end of the day I know that my parents were proud of me and valued my contributions.

Again, I really feel that balance is the key thing.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006 11:21:49 AM
moorea said...

Reading the comments, I'm finding the different views on praise interesting. They have made me think about my own parents' motivations in praising me. I think my parents received very little praise from their parents -- the same experience of some of the readers who believe praising to be helpful. On the other hand, my parents' silent examples speak loudly: that doing good and not letting what other people think affect how you live your life are more important than impressing others. It reminds me of Eleanor Roosevelt's "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

I appreciated Daja's comment, but I respectfully disagree with

"If a young lady does not feel she is affirmed by her father and doesn't know that her father thinks she is beautiful she will look for someone who will tell her how lovely she is. Being affirming and full of praise for a child can protect them."

I have heard this point again and again and I don't think it's a coincidence that it's always made using a daughter and her father. If it's true that young women whose fathers don't tell them they're beautiful will look for approval from someone else, why is this? When my father praises my physical appearance, it feels unhealthy to me, as if he's telling me that I shouldn't feel good about myself if I don't receive such positive feedback from him.

Personally, as a woman, the single most important experience that helped me not obsess over my physical appearance was to begin dating other women. This really made me understand that beauty can take incredibly diverse forms -- not the razor-thin standards I was brainwashed into aspiring to as a straight teenage girl. (In other people, though, this realization does not need to involve being attracted to people of the same gender).
Tuesday, June 13, 2006 12:55:07 PM
Anonymous said...

While I can appreciate the advice given on caution in offering praise, I think that eating disorders stem from a much deeper source of pain. Perhaps in this instance, the praises were percieved as additional pressure in living up to unrealistic expectations? I am all too familiar with eating disorders and my observation has led me to conclude that the root of an eating disorder varies from person to person, but ultimately begins with extreme pain. I wonder what was underlying the praises this person received. I am sure that there is much more to the story.
Tuesday, June 13, 2006 1:11:20 PM
Anonymous said...

We often over react to "the effects" rather than teaching our children to be confident in themselves and to be able to handle what comes at them. Confidence comes in letting our children know we love them because of who they are.

Parents of gifted children, whether it is a talent or good looks often perpetuate the problem by emphasizing it even more. And it's understandable - who wouldn't be proud that their child is good at soccer, or is better looking than others? We know it's true, but we don't need to make a big deal out of it, which is what gives children the impression that and only that is what makes them special.

Children who are truly confident will not think it is "special" to be gifted or pretty. They will be able to take it in stride, and not think they have to be better at their gift in order to win your love. They will also be able to handle other people who try to put them down in order to make themselves feel of worth.

I am a 3rd generation Chinese lady, and culturally, my family did not give praise, so I always felt I had to be perfect, and still did not get the praise I hungered for. My brother and older sister got all the praise, so another thing is to praise your children equally.

We should teach our children to know the truth of themselves - they are wonderful, talented, special people, regardless of what anyone else says. I'm still working on that, because after a lifetime of being treated as last place in my family, sometimes I fall back into the old way of thinking.

Dr Kim, thank you for your thoughtful articles and providing this space for us to converse.
Tuesday, June 13, 2006 1:49:43 PM
Margaret said...

There is a difference between praise and encouragement. I believe we should all strive to encourage our children, but praise is something we can do without.

Encouragement focuses on the development of a child's abilities and the development of an internal sense of self and self-worth. Encouragement recognizes effort and improvement, and encouraging remarks recognize a child's constructive contributions in life.

We can let children know that we think they are special by using encouraging remarks instead of praise. Encouraging remarks include:

I appreciate your help
You figured it out!
You reached your goal!
You are capable
You are unique
You did your best
I love you
I trust your judgment
Look how far you've come
You really stuck it out
I can see you worked hard
You can do it

Praise, on the other hand, focuses taking control away from the child and giving it to external sources. The child must depend on others for their sense of self and self-worth. The focus is often on personal gain - winning over losing - and the child is only rewarded when they complete work and when they do it "well" (according to other people's standards).

Examples of praise include:

You are so smart
You are too cute
Good boy / girl!
You're the best player on the team

Ultimately, praise is discouraging because it is impossible to always live up to other people's standards. In addition, one cannot and will not always receive praise from others.

In helping children develop a sense of self and self-worth, it is also important to ask them what they think of themselves and their accomplishments. Instead of automatically telling them what our observations are of them and their work, we can ask questions like:

What do you think about it?
How do you think you did?
Would you do anything different?

When asking these sorts of questions it's important to be genuinely curious and interested in hearing what the child has to say. Children don't just need to hear encouraging remarks to feel validated; they also need to know that they will be listened to, and that their thoughts and ideas are important.

- Margaret Kim
Tuesday, June 13, 2006 3:09:44 PM
Ben Kim said...

I really appreciate all of you taking the time to share such thoughtful, important, and diverse perspectives on this topic.

In reading through all of your comments, what comes to mind is that if a person reads through all of these perspectives, chances are good that she or he will walk away with more awareness of how much power we have to influence other people, especially children.

It's been said that the basic makeup of our personalities as adults is established early on in life - perhaps by as early as five or six years of age. I believe that all of us have great capacity to improve and build upon our character traits as we age, but in my mind, there is no denying that how we are treated by authority figures when we are children is probably the single most important factor that influences how our lives turn out.

I think what's most important is a person's intentions. Excessive praise, lack of praise, and all other mistakes that we can make in our relationships are likely to be forgiven sooner or later if the person who is hurt believes that we deeply care about his or her welfare.

Put another way, if we make a mistake because we don't know any better in the moment, I think this is okay. Things will probably work out eventually.

But if we make a mistake that involves a bad spirit like vengeance, jealousy, pettiness, or hatred, a permanent scar may be created, one that can never fully disappear from a person's heart.

With all of that said, my Utopia is a place where people derive self esteem from their daily efforts to live honest and productive lives, not from their appearances. Maybe it is easier for me to have this wish than it is for most women to have it. I fully acknowledge that in general, women seem to face more pressure than men to be physically attractive according to society's standards.

What brings me hope and a feeling of gratitude is the never-ending chance of meeting other people who share similar ideals. Is there anything more euphoric in life than coming to know and spend time with others who share your ideals? It's a feeling that I guess most animals in the wild experience when they come across one of their own.

- Ben Kim

P.S. Moorea: the blog entry on my experience with vitligo can be found here.

At this time, the only way to search through our blog is to use the MSN search tool bar on our main site or on our blog home page. MSN has close to 800 of our pages indexed, so chances are good that most of our blog entries can be found through their engine.

Please note that I removed "Raves" from the newsletter sign-up area. You have a great radar for hypocrisy. :)

Mary-Helen: I feel that I'm doing okay with our newsletters. I'm looking forward to a day when our baby will be old enough to sleep through the night. I wouldn't trade a second of watching him grow up for anything in this world, but I'm sure looking forward to getting more sleep. When that day comes, I think I should be able to do more for this site and our newsleters.
Tuesday, June 13, 2006 10:29:09 PM
Anonymous said...

Enjoyed reading all of your comments.

Can praising others cause harm? I was at Wal-Mart the other day in the greeting card section when I noticed this older lady- probably in her late sixties, I'm thinking- with the most colorful clothing I had ever seen. She was totally wow!!! In fact, in my forties, I looked 100% uninteresting in comparison and couldn't help but smile at this interesting creature. This lady put a smile on my face and naturally I just had to tell her she looked truly lovely in her choice of style and colors.In such situations I think a sincere compliment is welcomed. When you think about it, strangers are friends we have not yet met.

As for complimenting children, I have raised five who are grown and gone and can not help but stress the importance of caution in this area. Think carefully before you speak for you influence their lives forever. There is no such thing as a perfect parent but we do try.

Best wishes to all.
Thursday, June 15, 2006 12:53:40 PM
Judit Szelenge said...

I remeber getting praise I felt was not quite true, so it kind of hurt me at the time. Especially concerning my looks and artistic talents. These two I felt I could do nothing about, so the praise somehow was either meaningless or even hurting. However, when I got praise for my character, like endurance or kindness or reliability etc, it did feel great. Now as a mom of three beautiful and very talented boys
:-) (I try not to tell them these things) my husband and I are working on praising them for their character. Example: "You sacrificed your free time to cook dinner for the family while I (mom) was bedbound. It was a very generous thing to do. Thank you very much. It encouraged me to be more generous too." It is not easy to say such praises when I would just love to cry how marvellous and wonderful they are and how proud I am, but I also agree with Dr Kim and others that some unsophisticated praise may be even worse than not praising them at all.
Friday, June 16, 2006 9:08:37 AM
peggywho said...

This is a very interesting topic especially as Dr Ben linked it to the eating disorders. I value all the different opinions expressed in the comments, for in part it may be what contributes to the basis of insecure feelings and pain that may be the root cause of the eating disorders.
I too disagree with Dr Ben about the praising and non-praising of children. Whilst I agree that some parents' enthusiastic "gushing" of praise can lead a child to think that they are more important and clever than everyone else (to most parents THEIR child is the best ...), to show genuine feelings about their child's progress in life is a good thing. Children sense your reluctance to praise (and probably don't understand the undercurrents) and may wonder why they are different to all the other children who they see get praised by their parents.
There is nothing wrong in giving a child a spontaneous hug or cuddle or kiss with " I love the mostest" or whatever you want to use in your family. This FEELING OF ACCEPTANCE AND LOVE;UNCONDITIONAL not linked to any action, effort or physical appearance ON THE PART OF THE CHILD is what builds a good self esteem. To be loved, accepted, valued and appreciated just for being themselves is what creates a strong core of strong self esteem. Children who are wrapped (by well meaning parents - and aren't we all tempted to do our damndest to protect our darlings from all the upsets of life?)in cotton wool presenting an unrealistic view of the world do not learn with caring guidance how to work through the bumpy bits as well as share the happy times. Much as a child learns walking and talking by imitation and learning to pick themselves up after a tumble, so it is with learning how to deal with all different situations, people and opportunities. It is the task of parents to guide their children to develop into balanced and well developed caring people.
None of us are perfect and my husband and I, imperfect loving human beings that we are, strived and in the main succeeded in guiding our now grown up two sons to become caring well adjusted people (though not perfect) taking their place in the World to help create a better and more enjoyable world for us all.
I do agree that self esteem is part of the pain that drives people into eating disorders based on my experience as a survivor of anorexia nervosa due to living with very difficult parents (interesting to note here that my four siblings all have some emotional difficulties and self esteem problems in various different forms and degrees). I continuously pushed myself to excel in every endeavour I undertook and that I placed unrealistic pressures on my body. For some people, THE ONLY PLACE they have any control is over their body by strict controls of what they eat. And then the disease takes that choice that decision from you and you CANNOT EAT no matter what.
Even years later I got a shock when I saw family photos that showed me as being slim when I thought I was fat. And it is nearly 30 years later and I still have to take care that what I view my body image is reality. I give myself permission to appreciate myself as I am every day, mistakes and all, and to treat people as best as I can everyday. Hope this gives some insight into the problems of parenting, developing good self esteem and eating disorders. Cheers Peggywho
Sunday, June 18, 2006 1:56:00 AM
Jake said...

I once heard a testimony from a woman whose daughter had suffered a period of constant illness. When this girl was in her twenties, Women's College Hospital in Toronto described the illness as psycho-somatic. This girl was ill from insecurity because she felt un-beautiful. The woman had avoided telling her daughter she was beautiful because she did not want the girl to become prideful. In her case, lack of praise caused great harm.
Perhaps there is no pat answer, communication with our children obviously requires great wisdom rather than hard and fast rules such as "NEVER PRAISE", "ALWAYS PRAISE", "ENCOURAGE BUT DO NOT PRAISE". We must become experts on our children's emotions and pray for guidance on how to speak to them.
Tuesday, June 27, 2006 10:01:09 PM
Mary Jane said...

Dr. Kim,
I know what you mean. My mom was overindulgent with her praise. Walking into a room the first thing she'd say to me was an elaborate "Ohhh! You look wonderful! You are so beautiful!" and I resented it every single time because I felt like I was on stage and I just wanted to be with her and to talk about things. But it wasn't possible because now everyone was looking at her, and she was in the spotlight and controlled the attention.
Well, I'm older now, and have dealt with it by just giving my mom a simple thank you, and turning the conversation to something not so superficial. But as a child, I was at the effect of my mother's ways and moods.
It has taken me many years and many hard-hitting self-esteem lessons to finally see that looking at values and actions and accomplishments are what is important, and not to first of all seek to please others with your appearance.
I'm in my fifties now and would have appreciated this advice when putting my life together.
It is a very important lesson.
Thank you for expressing it so wisely,
Mary Jane
Monday, July 03, 2006 11:28:09 AM
Chey said...

i can quite fervently & sincerely adhere to your stance here. i have, very recently, battled an eating disorder & i suppose much was to do with the expectations wrought upon me. i did not possess the strength to maintain my academic achievements, i was exhausted, + lost, rather literally, control of my life. i loved the power & control i had over food ... in addition, i was naturally slim when younger & was always "exhibited" amid my family -- like "oh, she's so skinny she could model" & "she can get the mess from under the bed because SHE'S the skinny one" & so forth. well, i gained weight & it spiralled.

i can most definitely say that expectations (both physical ones & academic) SIGNIFICANTLY induced my eating disorder. now my life is effed up. i do think that some kind of praise is vital though, such as you look pretty today, but nothing which perpetuates.
Friday, July 14, 2006 6:51:50 AM

I relate to the young woman in the original poster's story in that my self-esteem and image of self-worth were created at a very young age, and were shaped very strongly by my parents, who were very strict. It is generally a tendency in girls (as part of gender programming) to look for approval and encouragement from others--as self-reliance is a characteristic most commonly cultivated in boys, so parents should also be aware of how they are programming their children based on gender, which is often subconscious.

Because of my self-esteem issues, and my feelings of self-worth being tied in directly with my parents' approval, I did not have the emotional coping mechanisms in place to find my own worth. While I did not develop an eating disorder because of these feelings, I did begin to self-injure--a behavior which lasted for three years during my adolescence.

Self-injury is a commonly misunderstood behavior that is most often linked to women, particularly those with eating disorders or histories of physical or sexual abuse. Some people also think it is simply attention-getting behavior or that an individual who self-injures is suicidal. Many people who engage in self-injury defy these characteristics and for many, it is a form of self-punishment--in my case, punishment for not living up to other peoples' expectations, for perceived failures I believed to have committed, or for not doing the "right" thing.

While I don't think that parents should walk on eggshells for the next twenty years in an attempt to avoid mentally scarring their children, I do admire the effort to be conscious of how seemingly harmless behaviors--such as praise--can be misused and influence a child's perception of reality. But that shouldn't mean that you should never praise your child. Throughout life, each of us can recall many circumstances in which praise and reassurance were helpful in times of self-doubt or discouragement.

But this praise should also be coupled with reinforced behaviors that encourage children and youth to find their OWN self-pride and confidence.

My parents did the best they could, and none of my three other siblings seems to have responded this way in reaction to praise. So keep in mind the genetic and emotional hard-wiring of your child plays a huge role in how they will respond to praise throughout their life. I think the most detrimental part of the praise issue was also that praise was used closely in accordance with NEGATIVE-reinforcement when I did not exhibit desirable behaviors. So by emotionally "beating down" your child and then providing the only means of building them back up through praise, a highly toxic combination of parenting behaviors is created.

Encourage and love your child, but reinforce YOUR encouragement with behaviors that will help your child realize on their OWN how valuable and wonderful they are.

I recently read a book called "The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, and other stories from a Child Psychiatrist's notebook" by Dr. Bruce Perry. It illustrated through painful stories of severe child neglect and abuse that children must be loved in order to love themselves or show love to others. Although I see your point that if one aspect of a person is emphasized to the extent that the persons sense of self-worth is dependent on the one trait, then their perspective can become warped and myopic. However, showing love through actions and words are equally beneficial and strengthening for a child. Overemphasis on appearance can be damaging but if it is balanced with praise for accomplishments, acts of compassion, insightful thoughts, funny jokes, unique art, or the many other myriad things a child does, the strongest message that comes across is "I am likable and lovable."

And, by the way, I really enjoy your articles! I am an acupuncturist I find your articles resonate well with my life philosophies and have opened my mind to new topics as well. Keep writing!!

Much ALoha!
Samantha Preis

Good article and it obviously stirred up lots of feelings and memories from people. The feelings about children that parents convey are so critical to later good mental health. But I was surprised that in all of the comments no one mentioned the difference between "growth mindset" and "fixed mindset." This has been much discussed in educational and psychological circles in the last few years and I recommend looking up these subjects. In a nutshell, when children are praised for fixed characteristics over which they have no control, it has a negative effect. If they are told, "You are so smart!" they begin to fear that something will happen to show that they are not so smart, and they can actually quit trying. If they are instead praised for things like problem solving, hard work and stick-to-itiveness, they begin to believe in themselves for qualities that will stand anyone in good stead. When faced with a particularly difficult problem, fix-mindset kids tended to give up if they couldn't do it easily. Growth mind-set kids were more likely to keep working at it. One little boy rubbed his hands together with glee and said, "I love a challenge!" I try to put these concepts into practice now that I have grandchildren. When one plays a piece for me on the piano, instead of saying, "That was amazing! You're so talented!", I now say, "You've worked really hard at this and it shows. I'm so impressed with what you're accomplishing. It's a pleasure to listen to you!"