When it comes to parents and praise — let’s just say there’s room for improvement.
I’m not talking about the genuine awe to which parents (especially brand-new parents) succumb when they take a good, long, contemplative look at their offspring. Because infants come to us equipped engineered with strategies, reflexes, and tools that ensure their survival, they really are fascinating.
No doubt — they’re worthy of our respect, encouragement, understanding. But daily applause?
The child-coronation movement got its start with the self-esteem literature popularized in the 1970’s, the decade in which most parents of today’s youngsters were born and/or raised. In 2003, the Association for Psychological Science conducted a reality check on 15,000 scholarly self-esteem studies (as opposed to popular magazine articles or the likely innumerable commercial exploitations of the concept). The team of evaluators found only a tiny percentage of the scholarly articles to be scientifically sound.
From a review of only the reliable research, the team of evaluators concluded that being in possession of high self-esteem did not shore up life skills such as self-regulation, impulse control, resilience, academic achievement or it’s offspring: career success. The lead researcher did gain an insight to parents’ willingness to provide their children so many self-esteem subsidies: praise for one’s child can also serve as affirmation for oneself.
Another problem with praise is that it’s not widely credible. Young children hear parents’ praise and easily accept it (which sets up other cycles about achievement and mastery), while school-age children analyze the compliments of teachers for hidden meanings. By middle-school age, students believe that a teacher’s praise is actually encouragement toward better work rather than accurate assessment of mastery. To these students, praise signals an inverse relationship between the teachers words and her perception of the student’s ability.
Persistence. Babies and toddlers have a lot of work to do. Things like standing up, handling items, or scaling stairs are motor skills that they have to learn with bodies that change shape quickly. Ongoing development requires cycles of learning and re-learning. Hold some of the applause for things that are above and beyond normally unfolding development.
Work ethic. Studies have shown that students who received more praise also shortened their time investment in work tasks, but increased reliance on body language and verbal cues to and from their teachers. In Part II of this series, we will look at the difference between praising a trait, and praising an action.
Resilience. Mistakes create a break in the action, a pause. During that pause, there can be acknowledgement of the undesirable outcome (the mistake), reflection on what went wrong, analysis, adjustments to strategy, persistence, and ultimately, correction. Whether the task is the stacking of blocks by a two-year old, or improving the grades of a 17 year-old, the process is the same. The sound of disproportionate praise drowns out that important, often internal process.
Tomorrow: In Praise of Praise, Part II of a Series
Read more Parenting Skills posts