The Power and Peril of Praise
In the western society with which we are familiar, the manner in which we encourage our children has been universally accepted. On witnessing a child’s achievements, even minor ones, adults almost always respond with, ‘What a clever boy/girl!’ or something similar. Events provoking this response range from a toddler’s first steps to test results at school. We do this in response to an axiomatic belief that the children will perform better with increased self-esteem. We use praise as the tool to achieve this.
From where does such a belief emanate? Dr Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist known for his work on social rejection, belongingness, control self-esteem, self-defeating behaviours and motivation believes that self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements. It’s so strong that, he says, ‘when they praise their kids, it’s not far from praising themselves.’ Flawed science has further cemented this belief.
In 1969, psychotherapist, Nathaniel Branden, published The Psychology of Self-Esteem. His book promoted his theory that self-esteem was the single most important facet of a person and that one must do whatever one can to achieve positive self-esteem. The belief became a movement with broad societal effects. Celebrated journalist, Po Bronson, comments, ‘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’.
One of the self-esteem movement’s key tenets was that praise, self-esteem and performance rise and fall together. From 1970 - 2000 over 15 000 scholarly articles were written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything – from sex to career advancement. But results were often contradictory or inconclusive.
Consequently, in 2003, the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature. His team concluded that self-esteem was polluted with erroneous science. Only 200 of those 15 000 studies met their rigorous standards. Following his review of the 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve marks or career achievement. It did not reduce alcohol usage nor lower violence of any sort. At that time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were ‘the biggest disappointment of my career’.
Over time, an increasing number of academics began to challenge the self-esteem’s key assumption that self-esteem must be built at all costs to improve performance. Baumeister, himself, now at an Australian university, published research showing that for College students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise causes their marks to sink further. An increasing number of academics arrived at a similar conclusion through their research.
Of course, this did not mean that all praise was negative. By and large, the literature on praise shows that it can be an effective, positive, motivating force. In a study by the University of Notre Dame on a losing College hockey team, praise’s efficacy was tested. It worked: the team made it into the playoffs. In this case however, the praise was very specific: players were specifically complimented on the number of times they checked an opponent.
Also crucial is the sincerity of praise. Child psychologists points out that just as adults can detect the true meaning of a backhanded compliment, children, too, scrutinise praise for hidden agendas. Young children under the age of 7 take praise at face value: older children are just as suspicious of it as adults.
“Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, a pioneer in the field, conducted a series of studies where children watched other students receive praise. According to Meyer’s findings, by the age of twelve, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well – it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism – not praise at all – that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude.
“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 criticises a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further.” (How Not to Talk to Your Kids, Bronson, P, 2007).
So how should we praise our children?
(Coming in Part 9)