NY Mag has an article cautioning excessive praise for your children
Since the 1969 publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem, in which Nathaniel Branden opined that self-esteem was the single most important facet of a person, the belief that one must do whatever he can to achieve positive self-esteem has become a movement with broad societal effects. Anything potentially damaging to kids’ self-esteem was axed. Competitions were frowned upon. Soccer coaches stopped counting goals and handed out trophies to everyone. Teachers threw out their red pencils. Criticism was replaced with ubiquitous, even undeserved, praise.
Dweck and Blackwell’s work is part of a larger academic challenge to one of the self-esteem movement’s key tenets: that praise, self-esteem, and performance rise and fall together.
Psychologist Carol Dweck:
“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
But all praise is not equal—and, as Dweck demonstrated, the effects of praise can vary significantly depending on the praise given. To be effective, researchers have found, praise needs to be specific. (The hockey players were specifically complimented on the number of times they checked an opponent.)
In the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, a teacher who praises a child may be unwittingly sending the message that the student reached the limit of his innate ability, while a teacher who criticizes a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further.
Their meta-analysis determined that praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy. The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”
Dweck’s research on overpraised kids strongly suggests that image maintenance becomes their primary concern—they are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down. A raft of very alarming studies illustrate this.
In one, students are given two puzzle tests. Between the first and the second, they are offered a choice between learning a new puzzle strategy for the second test or finding out how they did compared with other students on the first test: They have only enough time to do one or the other. Students praised for intelligence choose to find out their class rank, rather than use the time to prepare.
In another, students get a do-it-yourself report card and are told these forms will be mailed to students at another school—they’ll never meet these students and don’t know their names. Of the kids praised for their intelligence, 40 percent lie, inflating their scores. Of the kids praised for effort, few lie.
Cloninger has trained rats and mice in mazes to have persistence by carefully not rewarding them when they get to the finish. “The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”
On a personal note:
Notwithstanding the rather confusing environment I had at home (an environment I concede I must try to have a fresh perspective in light of the article), I grew up in a system filled with effusive praise for my intelligence, one that reached its peak when I streamed ‘successfully’ to the top of Singapore’s ranking system. Being part of that system, I developed a lot of bad habits and ineffective mental models. It was around my NS time that I entered what one might consider a rather bleak period in my life.
And I wasn’t prepared to handle it. I’m still not sure if NS made the handling of the period worse or it played an integral part of the breaking process needed to start from scratch. What I do know is that unlearning was hard and I resisted that process.
During my university days, I was still stuck with a lot of the baggage from the earlier years. I’m now painfully aware that I was ‘handicapped’ by my ‘if-I-cant-make-it-perfect-then-I-won’t-do-it-because-I-don’t-want-to-fail-perfection’ mentality. The friends who knew me since my JC days, those that I made along the way, those that stuck through those periods with me, and those who I made over many nights of quite contemptible self-pity were witnesses, to be slightly dramatic about it, a rather self-destructive phase of my life.
I’m pretty sure I’m not out of the woods yet. I’m not sure I’ll ever be. What I do take comfort in, is that I’m beginning to be aware of what was happening to me during those periods, and how the way I was ‘nurtured’ and ‘praised’ affected me and how I allowed it to affect me.
This awareness is now a compass I’m carrying.
On another note:
“At least you did your best” is a meaningless platitude. It does nothing for the receiver who is neither comforted nor provided with a plan to improve. One shouldn’t shy from criticisms or brutal evaluation of performance if it comes with concrete points for improvement. We tend to do a lot of criticizing and evaluating but little of the latter needed to make the criticisms and evaluation meaningful.