Examining Praise

I see a lot of memes and jokes circulating about how “kids these days want a trophy for showing up” or how parents have raised special little snowflakes who have never experienced brutal honesty about their own true potential in life and are blissfully unaware of their own averageness, ( until they need to pay a bill/go to college/get a job/ etc.) There is this sort of backlash against the last generation of parents who were all about raising kids with good self-esteem and bolstering capability, supporting their dreams, blah blah. It seems like each generation the pendulum swings from permissive parenting  and back to tiger mother/drill sarge in popular culture. There will always be the majority of people just doing their own thing, but there is also this sort of revolving trend in the language and the current medium of cultural communication.

So what I’m about to say might sound off the wall, but bear with me to the end. But here it is: I think we praise our kids too much. For the wrong reasons. And I think it holds them back.

I know! I grew up in a household where good behavior and grades weren’t rewarded because they were seen as a bare minimum, not an accomplishment. I didn’t really get told “good job” unless I had really stepped up my game. I’m not saying that is the right way to go about things, not at all. I could have used more encouragement and recognition and support. I often think of how well I could have done if I had more involved and supportive folks. Im not going to advocate a 0 praise policy here.

When I was a preschool teacher I had the awesome pleasure of getting to go to a Bev Boss seminar. She was the one who planted the seed of examining the way I praise the children in my life. She stressed that we not make value judgements on the work that preschoolers do, positive or negative. Instead she suggested making observations and asking questions.

Many folks, myself included, would give a kid who shows us a bit of their artwork a hearty “Good Job!” ( whether it was a mass of brown scribbles or a passable stick figure, it  gets the same reaction, because we want them to feel good). And often, they run back to the art table, hastily crank out another “picture” and run it back to us as fast as they can to get another Good Job, Hi-5, whatever….

But what if we didn’t evaluate and praise in this automatic way? And why should we be more mindful of what we are encouraging and how?

Life isn’t all making pictures to win the favor of authority figures. In real life, your ability to work is as iportant, if not more, than the products you can turn out. Yes you can make 1000 pictures a day, you can be the fastest scribbler. But the person who found the work is its own reward will have more quality work, if it is less. The person who works just for the “Good Job” will soon find out that really, only your own mom and dad give you a hi-5 for the bare minimum of work. And your boss is not your mom.

And this is why I insist that we need to reward effort, and stop blindly praising out of habit. I’m not talking about skill. I’m not asking kids to paint like Matisse. I am asking them to take more than 4 seconds to finish their work. I’m asking them to do their work for the sake of the work. I’m asking them to participate in applying details, making use of the materials, developing the project. And then when they show me their work, instead of “good job” I reward them with an emphasis on how hard they worked, not on the quality of the work, but the intention and effort.

So what does that look like? I’ll give examples. They can be applied to most kids projects and artwork, lego structure, etc.

Child: ” look what I made/did. Do you like it?”

Me: “Do You Like it?”

Child: “yes, it’s a (subject)!”

Me: “Oh yes, I see that it is. You really like (subject). I see you used a lot of ( color) and some (material). Did you have a good time making it?”

Child: “Yes!”

Me: ” I love watching you work hard on your (project)”

So, the emphasis here is on doing the work for themselves, not making a product for my benefit. Also, they are being supported in doing what they like to do and exploring their interests without needing the adult in charge to approve of it or even understand it. There is no value placed on the quality of the work or the work itself, but the effort that goes into it. I hope, I really think, this is the way to get kids to work harder once they get to academics, and when they learn a new skill  in a sport or activity they enjoy.

Now, there is a time where a “good job” ( or a variant of) is totally the thing to say! When a child goes above and beyond expectation, finished something difficult, makes a difficult choice, shows integrity and fairness, achieves a special recognition, that’s a really fantastic opportunity to really show them that the praise is meaningful and more than just a conditioned response.

It a hard habit to break. It’s deeply ingrained in our culture. Gold stars and stickers and stuff are passed out to keep the peace, everyone gets a treat so no one is upset, and saying “good job” makes you feel good, and makes the kids feel good too. I still say it all the time. Its a human thing.

I’m re-writing the script and trying to be more conscious of what behavior I’m encouraging and how it will benefit my kids as adults, and I’m trying to get rid of empty praise, trying to get my kids to find value in effort.


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