The Beautiful and the Damned: Is Praise Actually Bad for Our Kids?

The author's son meditating at the Museum of Contemporary Art in ChicagoThe author's son meditating at the Museum of Contemporary Art in ChicagoThere has a been a lot of buzz about praise and parenting lately. Much of this is thanks to articles like this one in New York Magazine and this one in Psychology Today. Much of what has been written applies to intelligence and athletic ability but it got me thinking about praise and beauty.

The other day, I told my friend's daughter that she gets prettier every time I see her. She responded with a shrug and a deadpan, "I know." My own son hears how handsome he is so often that he often just ignores the statement entirely or rolls his eyes. I'm pretty sure these responses (however rude) are not out of the ordinary.

Which brings me to the question: Are our kids being over-praised when it comes to looks?

Related: Why I wish people would stop telling my daughters they're beautiful

I don't remember being told all that often that I was pretty when I was a child. I was kind of awkward but it's probably got more to do with a cultural shift. My mother didn't seem to focus on her looks that much. My generation, in contrast, is pretty insecure. Is it our own bad self-esteem that has driven us to praise our kid's beauty? Is it the fear of passing along our own feelings of never being quite beautiful enough?

I've personally watched my peers battle anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. I've seen perfectly lovely people go under the knife. Did we not get enough praise? And if that's the case then why are our younger generations just as concerned with achieving perfection?

Our obsession with beauty is no doubt societal. What is unclear is how to teach our children to be happy and confident with what they look like despite the barrage of messages pushing an almost unachievable ideal. I personally believe that as long as I teach my son that attractiveness is subjective, that there is beauty in being unique, and that his looks are not tied to his self-worth, then he'll be just fine. He will be able to accept my praise and keep in perspective.

Aren't we under-estimating our kid's intelligence if we think they don't understand that a compliment from Mom or Dad is special? I'm not implying that our words aren't genuine but they are directed to people we love unconditionally and see through rose-colored glasses. At age five, my son seems to have figured this out, hence the eye rolls.

Maybe I'm wrong and perhaps I'm overdoing it. Maybe he will eventually feel too much pressure to fit into society's idea of "handsome" because I've made him feel as though good looks are essential to admiration. Or maybe, he'll just know that in this big, harsh, insensitive world, there will always be at least one person who thinks he's the most beautiful person in it.

- By Sonya Lee Benham
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