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Siblings Without Rivalry – The Perils of Praise

I am all about the praise. While teaching public school, I favored compliments on behavior as opposed to critiques to motivate students. “I like the way Suzie is sitting quietly” or “I like how Bobby is raising his hand.” Low and behold, the rest of the kids in the class would follow their lead. Over the years, I learned to make my praise as specific as possible, increasing the students’ chances of repeating their successes. So, naturally, this strategy carried over into my parenting.

I love to point out a job well done. When my girls are working hard constructing with their blocks, I’ll let them know I appreciate their perseverance; when they’ve finished an art project, I’ll commend their originality; and on the off chance I catch them saying kind words to one another, I’ll tell them how happy it makes me to hear them be sweet. Therefore, I had a hard time with the section in Siblings Without Rivalry when the authors suggest “the passion and excitement you feel about a child’s achievement should be saved for a moment when just the two of you are together. It’s too much for the other sibling to have to listen to.”

Seriously? I read this and thought, “These parenting books have gone too far.” First of all, the times during the day when I’m alone with either of my children are infrequent. Sad, yes, but true. I’m not even guaranteed bedtime because I teach two nights each week, and on the nights I am home, I must admit my brain is fried. I’m lucky I remind them to brush their teeth much less recall something good they did hours earlier so I can compliment them in private.

I get that parents shouldn’t compare their children – the old why can’t you get good grades like your brother – and while I may be guilty of that from time to time, I wouldn’t say that’s one of my parenting flaws. According to the chapter “The Perils of Comparison,” my desire to praise is. Faber and Mazlish argue against praising one child in front of the other, which is something I’m guilty of numerous times a day. My mantra is “Build them up before the weight of the world knocks them down.”

Still Faber and Mazlish maintain “We don’t want to shortchange the child who is excited about her accomplishment. Yet we do want to be sensitive to the feelings of the others.” They say, “You’ll never go wrong if you describe what you think the child might be feeling (‘You must be so proud of yourself!’) or what the child has accomplished (‘A lot of practice and perseverance went into winning that medal.’) The trick is not to add, ‘I’m so thrilled.’”

I was ready to abandon Siblings Without Rivalry all together because I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of praising being bad when my life became an anecdote in the book (and not a positive one).

We were in the car, driving home from school, when Annabelle, my oldest, started sharing her ideas for her latest book. She went on and on, to the point that I was really not paying attention any more, so when she finished I said, “Sounds like a great idea,” trying to ease my guilt over tuning her out.

Instantly, Lily started crying. “What’s wrong?” No answer. “Lily, what is it?” Nothing. When we finally pulled into the garage, she was hysterical. I thought she was hurt so I dashed to her car door to let her out.

Once she was in my arms, Lily sobbed, “I never have any good ideas.” I realized in that instant there was merit to the authors’ point. That’s not to say I’ve stopped praising, but I am more mindful of how I share my pride or pleasure in accomplishments if a sibling is within earshot.

Still, I’m watching the Olympics, crying during the P&G advertisements that have all the athletes as children since they are always kids in their parents’ eyes, and I can’t help applying the authors’ theory to the games. So Lindsey Vonn’s parents can’t say “I’m so proud of you” after she wins the gold medal if her siblings are standing there? Come on. My husband says these principles don’t apply to adults, but my mom begs to differ. She says siblings rival no matter what the age.

What do you think? Does my praise mean my daughters are destined to spend the rest of their life in therapy, recalling the ways I loved the other more? Or is the peril of praise simply not doing it enough?

Victoria Winterhalter is a mother, teacher, reader, and writer on the education and environment beats for RFM. She has been with RFM since its founding in 2009 and has contributed photos and written numerous articles on education, parenting, and family travel.

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