“Moms and dads who bathe kids in exaggerated flattery to boost low self-esteem are stifling the very children they hope to elevate, a new study shows. ” This is the opening sentence of an article by Bill Briggs. Briggs is referencing a study in his article. It brought to mind two traps you need to avoid in youth ministry.
Let me say at the outset that the study was conducted on younger children, aged 8 to 12. However, you cannot help but wonder the results hold true for teens.
The issue the study uncovered is not praise itself. It is “excessive” praise to a particular target group. How do you figure out whether or not praise is excessive? Well the researchers looked at the use of superlatives. Here is an example from the article: “‘You answered very fast.'” So what’s the matter with that? It’s that word “very.” It appears to have put an added burden. It raised the bar and it seems that the less confident children did not push themselves for fear of missing it. What if they couldn’t do it again? It’s an article worth reading. At the same time, When that same target group was given regular type of praise, they were more likely choose something more challenging.
I must confess that my antenna rose when I read this article. It suggested two traps that we can easily fall into in youth ministry. I know I like to encourage others. We all do, I believe. Could it be excessive?
#1 of 2 traps—Over-the-top praise
Nothing is wrong with giving praise and complimenting youth on their efforts. You know that. Just this week, in the last blog post we talked about the importance of celebrating youth. Could it be, however, that you could hinder the less confident youth in your group by giving praise that’s, well to use the word of the researchers, “inflated?”
You live in a “super” time. Things have to be supersized or mega. Servings at restaurants are larger than they used to be. Words like “amazing” and “awesome” are no longer reserved for rare performances (guilty I am). It would be easy for you to carry this over into youth group as you seek to affirm your teens. However, it could be a trap. You may actually make it harder for that less self-confident teen to take on new challenges.
Another aspect to inflated praise is that you give youth a wrong estimation of their abilities. If you do this, you are not being fair to them. They need to know their capabilities as accurately as possible so that they know what they need to work toward.
Youth are at the identity formation stage and are vulnerable with or without a low self-image. Exercise caution and avoid over-the-top complimenting or the type that is not in keeping with their capabilities.
#2 of 2 traps—the low bar
The other trap is setting the bar too low. You can do this in two ways. You operate in entertainment mode or you don’t provide challenging content. Note that the emphasis is on content rather than the mode of delivery.
Sure. Young people want to have fun. This does not mean they’re incapable of depth. In school they are challenged. While you don’t want to add the type of stress that school does, go deep in your youth ministry lessons. Provide activities that raise the bar bit by bit.
The youth in your group are most likely older than twelve years. However, they are still vulnerable. Be sure you do not “sink” them by avoid the traps of over-the-top praise and the low bar.
Discussion/comment: How do you avoid these traps in your youth ministry?