If you are like me, you probably had a coach, parent, teacher, or boss who avoided praise all together because he or she was sure that it would “give you a big head.” While the goal of keeping you humble sounds noble, not giving others affirmation or words of praise goes against what God tells us to do. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 says, “encourage each other and build each other up.”
Perhaps because we remember how hard it was not getting praise, we sometimes take it to the other extreme and praise like crazy—at least with kids. (Rarely do you hear people praising their spouse, or coworkers, or pastors like crazy.) Our society encourages us to build children’s self esteem with glowing words of praise—yet, the wrong kind of praise can do far more harm than good.
I recently heard a pastor tell what happened when, as a teenager, he discovered how good it felt to have people praising him for his good behavior. He kept doing things in public to make sure he would keep getting that affirmation. If someone would have stepped in close to disciple him, that person would have discovered the deep sin hiding beneath the surface. Instead well-meaning people just kept praising his outward actions. That praise became like a drug he kept going to for another hit. It sent him down the road of people pleasing with disastrous consequences.
Timothy Keller says, “Poor parenting can train children to so desire approval and love that they remain in abusive relationships or become workaholics. . . . Only if we cultivate our relationship with God and grow the desire for Him will our other desires not entrap us.” (God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life, page 93)
Telling kids they are brilliant and assuring them that they can be anything they want to be is setting them up for failure and turning their heart away from God and to themselves. My wants are not what should govern my life. The whole idea of—“If you can dream it, you can do it!”—is often delusional, always self-focused, and way too limiting. God says He wants “to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). His plan is to blow our minds by using us in ways beyond what we can dream or desire.
Carol Dweck did extensive research in how children are praised. She wrote about it in a 2006 Scientific American. The conclusion she and her colleagues came to was that if children are praised for being smart or talented, they become less willing to try things they don’t think they can succeed at right off. This shuts down a growth mindset and leads to an extremely limiting fixed mindset. Children praised for being smart don’t know how to handle challenges that naturally come when we learn something new. Research shows it is better to praise students for their effort than for smarts or talents.
While Carol’s research is interesting, she’s still missing a major component. Jesus said, “without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Apart from Christ, we have no body or mind to work hard with. Nor do we have opportunities to learn, grow, or achieve.
What we need—and what others need from us—is Christ-centered praise. Sharing with others where we see reflections of Christ or evidences of His grace in their life keeps the spotlight on Jesus. “God is glorified in us when we affirm the work He has done and is doing in others.” Sam Crabtree’s Practicing Affirmation, page 12).
A great example of this is how the woman of Proverbs 31 is praised. She is to be honored because she fears the Lord. “God is honored by pointing to the woman’s excellence in fearing Him, the One who defines and exemplifies excellence.” (Sam Crabtree’s Practicing Affirmation, page 13)
If you want to learn how to praise in Christ-centered ways—I recommend Sam Crabtree’s Practicing Affirmation. In his book, Sam quotes John Piper—“Our fatal error is believing that wanting to be happy means wanting to be made much of. It feels so good to be affirmed. But the good feeling is finally rooted in the worth of self, not the worth of God. This path to happiness is an illusion” (Practicing Affirmation, page 25).
If we want to keep the kids we influence from becoming approval junkies, there are two skills we need to master.
1—Learning to affirm God for all He is worth
2—Learning to affirm the work we see God doing in others.
I’m asking you to join me in learning and practicing these 2 crucial skills. If you do—God will be honored, we will be changed by seeing others in the light of what Christ is doing, and those we praise will learn to see themselves and their accomplishments through the lens of God’s Truth.