Seeking praise – Stephen Grosz revisited

Praise may be defined as an expression of approval or admiration.

Who wouldn’t want that?

If you write a blog, don’t you love it when others “like” a post, leave a positive comment, re-blog your article or link to it via theirs? I do. Aren’t these all expressions of approval or admiration?

What about on Twitter when someone Re-tweets, favourites or replies positively to your comment, engaging you in conversation?

Aren’t these also expressions of approval or admiration?

I love to receive all these signs of encouragement and support that let me know that my efforts are appreciated and confirm that I am on the right track. If I did not receive any of this feedback I would feel quite isolated and consider my efforts to be fruitless and a waste of time. I would probably just give up.

As a teacher I have always considered it of primary importance to create a happy and welcoming classroom environment in which children feel valued, affirmed and supported. Expressions of approval and admiration for behaviour, effort and achievement were generously given with the aim of encouraging the desired response, a happy child being foremost. I have written about this in previous posts, including:

Happy being me

Affirmations: How good are they?

As a parent too I considered it important to affirm my children and display my approval and admiration for them. I still do, even now they are adults. The need for approval never ends. I know sometimes you just have to go out there and say what you know is right, even though others will disagree or ridicule you. I am not talking about those instances here.

My strong belief in the power of affirmations and approval stems partly from the dearth of them in my childhood and school days. I have also mentioned this in a previous post: 

Mouthing the words – the golem effect

Recently I listened to a fabulous (audio)book, “The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves” by Stephen Grosz. I wrote about it in my previous post A book worth reading: Stephen Grosz “The Examined Life” saying that

“What appeals to a reader about a book, or what a reader takes away from a book is as individual and personal as the reader. What is of most significant to one, may be of lesser importance, or even insignificant to another. “

For me the chapter of most significance is chapter 3 “How praise can cause a loss of competence”.

To say I was startled by the title would be an understatement. I was puzzled, intrigued and challenged. How could praise cause a loss of competence? Surely negative feedback or a lack of encouragement altogether would be major contributors to diminishing competence. Was everything I had believed and practiced wrong? (Oh no –there’s my need for approval and affirmation!)

Grosz says that during the past decade studies into self-esteem have found that praising a child as “clever” may not only inhibit school achievement, it may cause under performance. He suggests children may react to praise by quitting. Why would you try to improve or do something new if you have already done something really well or are the “best”?

Studies showed that children who were praised for effort, rather than for being clever, were more willing to try new approaches and were more resilient. Children who were praised for being clever, tended to worry more about failure and chose unchallenging tasks, tasks they knew they could achieve or had already achieved. Being told they were clever led to a loss in self-esteem and motivation and to increased anxiety. Some children who had been praised for being clever (rather than working hard), when confronted with a more difficult task and asked to comment on it, were so unhappy with the results they lied about them, exaggerating their achievements to others.

Grosz questions whether we may lavish praise on our children nowadays in order to demonstrate that we are different from our parents who possibly used criticism, rather than praise, on us. I hinted at something similar earlier in this article.

While admiring our children with words like “Good boy” or “Good girl” may temporarily lift our self-esteem by showing others what wonderful parents we are or how wonderful our children are, Grosz says, it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self. He says that in trying to be different from our parents we end up doing the same thing: doling out empty praise where an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism.

Grosz says that if we offer this empty praise without thinking about the child’s individuality and needs we are effectively showing the child indifference.

So what do we do?

I think the emphasis here is on the empty praise. I think support, encouragement and positive feedback are all essential. Sure, knowing in yourself that you have done well is fine but a little recognition certainly helps too. I think the difference is in recognizing what has been achieved, the learning or progress made, and the effort it took, the message communicated in a story or painting and the techniques used; not a hollow “Well done”, “Good work” or “Good boy” but “Tell be about . . .”, “Why do you think that?” “How did you work it out?” “I like the way you . . .”

As Grosz says, this is being attentive to the child, to what the child has done and how it has been done.

To read more on this topic:

Sian Griffiths interviewed Stephen Grosz and reported on the interview in the article “Praise her . . . and see her fail” which adds even more clarity to my precis above.

Maria Popova delves into the messages of this same chapter in her article “Presence, Not Praise: How to Cultivate a Healthy Relationship with Achievement

Being attentive, being present, being really with someone, noticing what they have done and how they have done it – is it more precious than praise?

In these days of constant distractions and must-dos to put all aside to be in the present with the child, friend or partner to talk, listen share and laugh, what better affirmation is there than that?

What do you think?

How has praise encouraged or discouraged you?   When has criticism hindered you?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

19 thoughts on “Seeking praise – Stephen Grosz revisited

  1. writersideup

    Norah, thank you for linking me to Anne’s post, and through that I came to this one. I LOVE the way you think and express things! Just as I had mentioned in a comment on a different post, false praise or “empty” praise, as was stated here, is flat out bad. You do more harm than good. We all want to know that things we’ve done are good/worthy/valuable or on the right track and your comparison with the “likes,” etc. on social media was the PERfect example! 🙂 But many people are ignorant (or needy themselves of praise, so feel it vicariously) as to what praise is good or appropriate. It basically comes down to giving a genuine compliment when it is deserved and if any form of criticism is necessary, it should be constructive and offered with the proper tone. Balance and honesty in all of it, I think 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for taking the time to link back, read and comment. I appreciate it, especially when I know you are busily getting your own blogs established and would really prefer no distractions. I agree with you entirely about criticism needing to be constructive and offered with the appropriate tone, with a sense of balance and honesty. So far as children and their learning goes, it also needs to be appropriate to their stage of development.
      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

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      1. writersideup

        NOrah, you’re so sweet, and yes, what I need to do is just delete all my notifications ’til I’m done and pretend all this doesn’t exist! lol Sadly, my blogs are still being neglected, but for some part, for good reason. I’m working on submissions, too. They come first. Well—except for other “life” stuff, of course 🙂 I REALLY want to get the blogs up though! lol

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          1. writersideup

            Well, we just had our annual NJSCBWI Conference a few weeks ago and there are several editors I’m submitting to. I sent a storybook to the one who was open to a longer illustrated book only she JUST moved to a different imprint so don’t know if her list will still fit that book, but perhaps my board books or picture books. I have a novelty idea that needs to be produced properly, so I’m working on that dummy. Do you write, Norah? I do almost all categories in kidlit, from board books through YA (though the novels are years in the making) which is not necessarily a good thing being unpublished.

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            1. Norah Post author

              You are obviously a very professional and talented writer. I wish you success with your submissions. Getting published can be a long hard journey, and I wish you a pleasant one.
              I do write. At the moment I am concentrating on teaching resources and stories for children. I am also working on a book app. I find it is a long, slow process with a lot to be developed. It is very enjoyable though.
              I have written a couple of stories for my grandchildren which I have shared on my blog. I am intending to turn Anna’s Pineapple and Who’s Hiding at Christmas into ebooks and/or book apps. You can read them here:
              Dinosaur Party: http://wp.me/p3O5Jj-47
              Anna’s Pineapple: http://wp.me/p3O5Jj-6D
              Who’s Hiding at Christmas: http://wp.me/p3O5Jj-am
              I’d love to know what you think if you have the time or interest. Thanks. 🙂

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              1. writersideup

                Thank you SO much for your well-wishes, Norah 🙂 I’d consider myself pretty professional, yes, and talent is a very subjective thing! lol Thank you, though!

                I’m definitely interested in reading your stories so have them saved for when I can read them, though when I know someone’s serious about writing, I am only capable of giving a serious opinion—IF that’s what you want 🙂

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  2. Caroline

    Hi Norah,
    I thought I had left a comment on this site, but perhaps it was elsewhere, about praise and Stephen Grosz and all that. I was being very clever. Not. I read the book yesterday and found that he had referred to Carol Dweck’s work anyway. So patient, you and Annecdotist, not to mention it to the showoff. I dont retract what I said only perhaps I should have waited.
    Loved the book, especially the stories. Still confused about the analyses.
    Caroline.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Caroline,
      Thanks for stopping by again with this comment. I think the comments you are referring to are on the next post in this series: the third installment by guest blogger, Anne Goodwin. This is a link to it: http://wp.me/p3O5Jj-cm. Thanks for praising my patience, however it wasn’t patience at all; I hadn’t noticed! I’m glad you enjoyed the book. There is certainly much in it, and many unanswered questions!

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  3. shecando

    A very thought provoking article. I’ve always shared a similar perspective towards praise so it will be interesting to read his book and really delve in further. Naturally, in a busy family and with lots of siblings, the kids I work with are desperate for acknowledgement and praise. And so in my day to day routine, I have made an effort to focus on the types of praise I give them. For example, I find that praising a specific activity they’re showing me, or drawing attention to a key area will not only open up areas for further communication but also drive them to push themselves to really hone their skills. As you’ve said, a simple ‘good girl’ leaves no room for progression, whereas ‘that double flip you just did on the trampoline was excellent, what else can you show me?’ gives room to develop.

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    1. Norah Post author

      A double flip on the trampoline! I’m impressed. I’d love to find out what else can be achieved. I can’t recall ever seeing a trampoline when I was a kid, and I’m not sure that I tried anything other a jogger trampoline as an adult. I certainly did enough jumping on the beds (as a child), though I don’t recall this activity being encouraged!
      On a more serious note, I’m certain the children benefit greatly from the mix of praise and positive encouragement you bestow upon them. Lucky kids!

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  4. Pingback: Examining praise: Stephen Grosz – the third instalment! | Norah Colvin

  5. Bec

    Thanks for the thought provoking post, it’s an interesting idea about praise, and it makes a lot of sense. The comments from Annecdotist too are really insightful. Hard work v. natural effort I think doesn’t just impact on those being praised for being ‘clever’ or ‘intelligent’, but could have a perverse effect on those not receiving the praise for their inherent attributes. For example, someone who is naturally capable but doesn’t work hard may receive praise for being smart, while someone who isn’t as naturally capable will work hard, but not get the same outcome. So they don’t get rewarded for their intellect, maybe for their hardwork, and certainly there is the socially constructed embarrassment of the ‘effort’ ribbon, which is given to those who aren’t actually capable. If we did start focusing the praise on hard work and effort, then perhaps these types of praise would be less embarrassing for the recipients (a la the participation prize). A bit of a brain dump here, hope you know what I mean! (No effort, I’m riding on the hope that my natural ability will get the message across…)

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Bec,
      Thank you for your comment. You have raised an interesting issue also. It makes me think of the Dux prize, or prizes for high achievement that can sometimes be won with little effort on the part of the recipient; and how one can work really hard and not be the best, or even one of the best, so receive no recognition from others for the effort expended. Sometimes children, who know they will not receive recognition for high achievement, seek recognition in other ways e.g. behaving inappropriately: any attention may be better than none. Of course this is not so for all children. Most just accept their results and get on with it. I think this is where true recognition, attention to effort and achievement, will be of most benefit.

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  6. Annecdotist

    I must confess that, although I loved this book overall, I kind of glossed over the chapter on praise. My excuse is that I was interested in the book from the point of view of story but, like you, I was challenged – and irritated – by the suggestion that praise could be harmful. Your wonderful thoughtful post has prompted me to go back to it and work out what I think.
    You, and he, are absolutely right that attentiveness is more useful than empty praise. (I liked the remedial teacher who thanked the children for being patient – what a great idea, helping the child to feel they have a choice and certain choices are appreciated more than others.) But, as you say, praise doesn’t have to be empty. Also, it’s natural to respond to the mistakes of the previous generation by going to the other extreme, so those of us who were insufficiently praised ourselves might overdo it. What I think he doesn’t make clear enough in the chapter is that what he’s suggesting is something that’s neither praise nor indifference, but what is often termed in psychoanalysis as the third position, in this case curiosity about the child and what he/she is doing. What a wonderful message to give a child (or any of us really) that someone in a powerful position like a parent or teacher is interested in them and what they are trying to achieve. (In fact, this benign attentiveness is what a psychoanalytically orientated therapist provides, although the neutrality of the position can sometimes be experienced as challenging in itself.)
    How much this is possible for a classroom teacher with lots of demands on her attention from children, parents and politicians meddling in the curriculum who insist that certain standards need to be reached without necessarily understanding the principles of education. Like you say in your other post on the happy child, sometimes what’s needed first and foremost is to create a comfortable and safe environment in which children can learn. Some kids, because of their home experiences, will come to school expecting criticism and they may well need an awful lot of praise before they can trust that the teacher will be benign.
    And I think this brings me to understanding my remaining irritation with this chapter, as it seems to be written from that cosy /smug North London culture (which is often parodied) where children are little princes and princesses. Certainly the examples he gives of praise from the nursery teacher in the book and in the interview you reference seemed to me over the top and not what’s reflected in the community where I live. I don’t think it’s just teachers who may not have the resources to be gently attentive to their children. (My story, Peace and Quiet Pancake, stems from a little girl’s creative attempts to engage a somewhat detached parent: http://flashfictiononline.com/main/article/peace-and-quiet-pancake/). Perhaps there are times when empty praise might be preferable to indifference.
    Although I have a background in psychology I wasn’t familiar with the 1998 experiment he discusses. However, the results are consistent with attribution theory which I studied in the mid-70s: if you tribute your success to factors you can alter, such as effort, rather than stable attributes, such as intelligence, you’ll work harder to get what you want. But there’s an earlier stage of this theory which looked at perceived locus of control (effort and intelligence both being internal factors) which was then incorporated into research on depressed mood (people with depression were less likely to tribute success to internal factors). What I take from this is that there are kids who, due to parental abuse, neglect or indifference, will have no sense of their own actions having any impact on the world around them (external locus of control) and will require great deal of patience from teachers if they are to discover their own abilities.
    Of course it depends on one’s view of education, but I wonder if children actually need different things from parents and teachers but the two get muddled and/or teachers get left to try to compensate for parental deficiencies – actually an impossible task. Parents need to be attentive to the child/baby’s needs right from the beginning, long before praise can have any meaning.
    Thanks again for your lovely inspiring post which has helped me think some things through for myself. However, if you think I’ve gone overboard in terms of what’s suitable for comment – it’s more of an essay – I’ll understand.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Anne,
      Thank you for your lengthy, thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. I have read your story “Peace and Quiet Pancake” and left a comment there. I cried for the characters in the story and for many I see around me. There are many children sitting in uninspiring classroom who have suffered similar rejections, dismissed by parents as unworthy and uninteresting. To expect those children to see something worthwhile in a classroom that is neither supportive nor meaningful to them is rather optimistic.
      You have made so many important points throughout your comment that I think each one will need to be discussed more fully and individually. I will seek a way to do that, and continue this valuable discussion.

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  7. Pingback: A book worth reading: Stephen Grosz “The Examined Life” | Norah Colvin

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