Over the past three generations, theories about self-esteem have dramatically changed. When my mother was a child, her parents gave her very little praise because they believed it would give her a "swelled head." Today's parents heap praise on their children for the tiniest achievements. No gesture is too small to escape exaltation and every action is followed by "good job."
Now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction and it turns out my grandparents may have been on to something. There is mounting evidence that constant praise may be damaging our grandchildren.
Last January, I read a fascinating article in Southwest Magazine by Heidi Stevens, author and columnist at the Chicago Tribune. Her article, "In Criticism of Praise" explains the negative impact over-praising can have on children. The more we praise them as Extra Super Smart Geniuses, the further they go to protect that label. In fact, they may stop taking risks because they're afraid they'll fail.
Parents and grandparents have become programmed to lavish our children with praise because we've been lead to believe that is how to build a child's self-esteem. According to Carol Dweck, Stanford University psychology professor and a leading pioneer in praise research, it's critical we try a new approach.
In 1997 Dweck published a study demonstrating that praise--at least a certain kind of praise--can actually backfire. Her studies show that when you praise children for who they are, e.g. "you're so smart" or "you have a good mind for math," you can make children want to avoid seeking out challenges. They don't want to risk failure, which might show that they really aren't that competent.
On the other hand, when you praise children for things they did well, e.g., "it looks like all that research you did this week paid off" or "I could tell you were really focused and hustling out there today," they'll be more motivated to repeat the behavior and try harder in the future.
"We have a big task ahead of us," says Dweck. "The self-esteem movement changed people's intuition about praise. But it's never too late to change our ways." In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck argues that "humans are infinitely capable of dropping or shifting even our most deeply ingrained habits. If parents lead the way, she says, their children will follow."
She's encouraged that parents, educators and mentors are having conversations about praise, even if they haven't universally shifted away from it. The solution is not to stop praising children but to praise appropriately. The goal is to encourage children to take pride in the process and to learn from their mistakes. Instead of protecting them from the realities of the world by glossing over their mishaps, we need to teach them resilience so they can bounce back from defeat.
Praising children is a hard habit to break but with conscious effort, we can change the way we compliment. Recently, my two granddaughters and I made a cooking video. We used my iPhone to videotape six short segments. When we were finished, my 11-year old granddaughter uploaded the segments onto YouTube so she could edit them and link them together into one seamless video.
As I watched her working, I was blown away by her ability to intuitively maneuver the technology, adding titles and music. My initial reaction was to say: "You're so brilliant!" But then I remembered Dweck's advice: Praise the process not their intelligence. So instead, I complimented her on figuring out how to work with the technology to create a video for all of us to enjoy.
Here are some tips on how to encourage children to take pride in the process:
- Be specific and ask questions. "I love the way you're telling a story." "Your use of colors is interesting. Can you tell me what you were thinking here?"
- Describe the behavior in specific terms. "All those long hours shooting baskets have paid off!"
- Be genuine in your delight. Children know when praise is genuine. If praise isn't sincere, children may get the unspoken message that they're inadequate.
Talk to your grandchild's parents and ask them what they've been reading and learning about praise and self-esteem. It's a fascinating conversation and one that can help us all become more constructive at encouraging children to keep trying.