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:
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.