Q. My eight year old son is exhibiting strange symptoms lately and I can't make him out. Each morning before he leaves to school, he complains of either a headache or a stomachache. On the days that he has a test scheduled, he puts up a terrible fuss until I finally manage to convince him to go. I have a sneaking suspicion that he feels stressed in school. However, I cannot figure out why that is so. He's a great boy who does excellent work. In fact, I've never seen him bring home a test paper without a perfect grade. I always tell him that he's a great boy. All his teachers praise him highly and claim that he's the top boy in his class. What do you think can be the problem here?

A. School should be an exciting and enjoyable place for your child. However, it seems that your son is under a lot of pressure in school. I would be surprised if this tension is not connected to the overabundance of praise he's been getting.

To come to school and constantly be on the receiving end of platitudes such as, "you're a great boy", "you do excellent work" does evoke a lot of anxiety. Such words may tingle with excitement the moment that the child hears it, but it doesn't last very long. As soon as its effect wears down, the child may feel desperately hungry for more. With time greater and greater doses are needed in order to satisfy his desire for that "euphoric" feeling. You might want to consider discussing this with your son's teacher.

Although praise expresses approval and admiration, it fosters dependency on outside approval. If your son can measure his worth only by the barometer of praise he receives from others, he may very well feel worthless when he doesn't receive this sort of compliment. In other words, the message he's picking up is that "I must meet their approval in order to feel good about myself".

There's another danger to this kind of praise in that it focuses primarily on achievement and success. This means that if his grades are anything less than perfect, he may feel that his essential value is less than perfect.

Consider as well that if your son's work is seen in absolutist, perfectionistic terms, "the top boy in the class." He might be weighed down by a lot of apprehension: What if he doesn't live up to everyone's expectation of him? What if he makes one mistake, will his precarious tower topple? And if "G‑d forbid" another boy in the class gets a compliment, is he ruined?

Furthermore, when your son is told that he's great, he learns that he's great when he's told he is. He has no understanding why he's great unless he's told why.

On the other hand, your son would feel safer and gain more if you can tell him about the steps he took that led him to do the job right. For instance, rather than telling him, "You're great," try telling him, "I see that you take the time and effort to study for your test." Or, "I see that you make sure to go to sleep on time. When we get enough sleep we can concentrate better in class." Your son can then see that his effort to study and to go to sleep on time has been noticed. Your son would then feel great. What's more, he learns that every time he studies and puts in effort or goes to sleep on time, he can feel great whether or not his mother or his teacher tells him so.

"Cherished is man for he was created in the image of the Almighty" (Etyhics of the Fathers 3:18). No one is perfect. Our weaknesses and limitations constitute part of the perfect world G‑d created. Regardless of our actions or successes, our essence is precious. The story about the talmudic sage Reish Lakish is a powerful example.

When Rabbi Yochanan met Reish Lakish, who was then the head of a gang of robbers, he saw the light of his essence. Noticing his unusual strength, he said to Reish Lakish: "Your strength should be used for studying Torah." Sensing his greatness, Rabbi Yochanan also agreed to arrange a marriage between his own sister and Reish Lakish. This conveyed a powerful message of trust and total acceptance, motivating Reish Lakish to become a great Torah scholar and, indeed, a great light for the Jewish people.

A sincere and specific compliment is a gift that every child deserves. Encouraging words raise awareness rather than apply pressure because it emphasizes what the child did right. With that awareness the child can recreate success whenever he so chooses. And he can feel secure in the knowledge that he'll know just what he needs to do the next time around.