Is it Possible to Praise too Much?

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“So long as men praise you, you can only be sure that you are not yet on your own true path but on someone else’s.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

“Wow!”  “You rock!”  “Good job!”  “Awesome!”  “You’re the best!”

When a child begins to learn to read and write it is only natural to praise him for his accomplishments. Praise is certainly good for all of us, but lavishing extravagant praise on your child might actually be detrimental to building both self-esteem and creativity. Praise generally focuses on the result, rather than the process. Constant praise leads a child to believe that the glory is not in the absorbed and engaged feeling she had during her endeavors, but in how successful the results have been. Children may begin to depend on a continuous loop of praise from adults in order to determine the worth of their efforts.

When a child offers you her first efforts at printing asking if she did it right, it is important to remember, that in answering the question in either a positive or negative way the result is that, in the child’s mind, what you are praising or criticizing is the product and not her perseverance and persistence. Parents too quick to correct, “It’s great, honey, but your L is backward, let me fix it.”,  although they have every good intention in mind, give a clear message to their child that they were expecting better. Children begin to strive for perfection in order to be to be applauded, rather than becoming one with the extensive and deeply creative process of learning.

When I was in school there was a hierarchy of stars given out for various achievements –red, green, and blue were on the lower end of the reward spectrum, silver was second best, but gold was parceled out stingily and only for excellence. In our goal oriented schools, with their focus on achieving higher and higher test scores, the overriding missive is: You are worth what others think of you, not what you think of yourself. Children are thrown off course early, desiring their parents and teachers praise, they work, not for the joy of satisfying their innate curiosity to learn, but for the highest grade. They want to make the team and get the biggest trophy, instead of enjoying the exhilarating feeling that comes over your body and mind when you are doing your personal best at any activity from reading to running.

Encourage your child by commenting on how hard he has tried. Ask your child questions about his work, why he chose a particular subject or color. In this way we individualize our praise, showing value for our children’s choices rather than the final effect. One child may take a long time drawing a butterfly which looks nothing like a butterfly. Ask her why and you may be surprised at the response, rather than a lack of fine motor skills, the child may tell you that the butterfly is flying around a garden, or hatching out of chrysalis. This use of imagination is far more valuable in establishing and strengthening the creative cognitive skills of true intelligence, than is the drawing of a “perfect” butterfly by rote. Sadly, it is the child with the perfect drawing that normally gets his work displayed and the child who happily scribbles, lost in his own world, that stops drawing because nobody noticed.

It is not only important in terms of understanding your child to ask about what she has done, and why she has done it, it also builds language skills, so necessary in early literacy. Writing down your child’s words on her drawing further extends these skills by reminding the child that writing is, simply, the spoken word on paper, a means to communicate to all. This subliminal lesson in the purpose of reading is invaluable. My experience is that children are very particular about the words they tell you to write, often speaking slowly and asking you to read their own words back to them so that they know you got it right. In small attentive ways we continuously show a child our interest and respect without, the sometimes, hallow words of praise.

Celebrate your child for who he is and not what he can do and self-confidence will grow. Praise sets up a fear of failure in the same way that criticism does. The child believes that perhaps what he attempts won’t be good enough, so he stops trying. Although no loving adult would tell a child that his work is awful, praise and criticism revolve around the same basic point – is my work good or is it bad? Ironically, no one can learn, either socially, artistically, academically, or physically, without failing. Therefore, fear of failure is paralyzing. When adults express either pride or disappointment they overlook the vast field of learning that lies between the two.

Independence leads to self-esteem. If a child is working to please someone else he is not developing independence, but interdependence. He is not trying his own inventive ways to get to a particular solution, but relying on those around him to tell him the “right” way to do it. So, gently encourage rather than overly praise, and you will see your child blossom. Whether children are learning to read, to play a musical instrument, or to hit a ball with a bat, share your joy in their efforts rather than their achievements and they will naturally gravitate to the things that they are passionate about doing-the true secret of success.

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