Many argue today that our overzealous embrace of the positive self-esteem movement has created a generation of attention junkies addicted to excessive and unearned positive feedback. As a teacher I see some of this, but I am also struck by additional concerns. Certainly, many adults are engaged in the "empty praise" game, handing out words like "amazing!" when a child has hardly engaged with the work. And we give away too many meaningless prizes in the name of equity. Even more troubling: many adults are offering inflated praise for work that they have had a personal hand in making a little more complete, a little more clever, a little more impressive.
Parents who equate praise with love might understandably feel that you can never have too much of a good thing. However, excessive or unwarranted praise does not typically boost confidence for children. In fact, when we step in to carry our children over the finish line (and wave our pompoms enthusiastically in the air), we risk many things.
Dangers of False Praise:
- Children actually feel less confident -- it can even make them feel fraudulent.
- Children are denied opportunities to learn real knowledge, skills and humility.
- Children miss out on the power of authentic praise to encourage and inform their efforts.
- Children can develop an inflated sense of competency and importance regarding their personal contributions.
- Children are less likely to develop an honest assessment of their own work.
Let's be clear. I am not arguing the merits of being a praise Scrooge, I am just wary of false praise. As a mother of a dyslexic child, I glimpsed firsthand why many parents come to believe that any and all praise is good. When my son was in the early elementary grades, I was very anxious that his low abilities were resulting in low confidence. I knew that he felt incompetent. He was experiencing real failures related to almost every activity at school. As he started to deflate, the need for additional encouragement felt urgent.
Finding opportunities for authentic praise is not easy when your child is struggling. But my son quickly dismissed the credibility of anyone who would try to buoy him with puffy praise about how "smart" he was or how "good" his work was (when it wasn't). Even a grandmother's encouraging comment about his "wonderful story" (two incomplete sentences long) was reason to never take her praise seriously again.
However, when I observed my son's ability to deal with his challenges, make connections between ideas or devise a clever workaround, he would light up. And as much as he soaked up any sincere observations, he also appreciated it when anyone would acknowledge his frustration as he struggled with things that came easily to most of his peers. Truthfully, it was hard to reassure my dyslexic child that his ability to think well would eventually help offset his mechanical struggles. However, I learned over time that hollow compliments only made him feel more worried about his capabilities (or lack of them).
As much as I like to see myself as a reformed over-celebrator, as a parent and teacher, I have my fingerprints all over this problem. I still struggle. I could offer many examples of my own missteps in this arena, but one that captures many additional angles of this problem involves me as a teacher.
A few years ago, as the adult leader for our school's Community Service Club, it was my role to help the club participants bring their action projects to life. They had big hearts and even bigger ideas, so when their ambitions didn't align with the reality of our timeframe, I rushed around behind the scenes to make up the difference. I made phone calls, I bought and hauled materials, I obtained permissions, I filled out the paperwork, I cleaned up, I counted money. I even made some posters (pathetic, I know). I was limiting their contributions to originating the idea and then assembling school supply bags to send to a Kenyan orphanage or contributing store-bought treats (paid for by their parents) to sell for a fundraiser. That in itself would not have been so problematic if we had refrained from inviting the marching band to celebrate their "hard" work and accomplishments. We wrote articles about them. We took pictures. Some club members went on to write about these projects in their high school application essays. I am certain that most students forgot that I had done most of the work -- if they had ever even noticed in the first place.
We don't use that model anymore. Today, we honor the limitations of time and adjust everyone's expectations accordingly. Instead of completing many flashy projects, we have learned that one clumsy, drawn out, student-led project is actually more impressive, authentic and confidence/competence building. Children need to slow down, struggle and problem-solve in order to learn all the elements that go into worthy efforts. They also need to appreciate where their efforts begin and end so that they can take appropriate responsibility when their efforts succeed or fail.
Not surprisingly, time is often the culprit when it comes to adult over-involvement in children's work. We often rush in to tidy up or finish off what our children have started because we perceive that they merely do not have time to complete an assignment or project. Or we worry that they can't afford failure. Sometimes we have over-identified with our children's work and their failures feel like our own. But when we offset our worries with false praise or too much assistance, we rob our children of developing an honest relationship with their own work.
Ultimately, that seems like that most significant danger of all.