He was in the fifth grade. Animated, good-looking, conversational and well-behaved. He made good eye contact when he spoke about his life, his hobbies and his family, he told me he liked school, and he never once said he was bored or asked when the class would be over. On the contrary, he came into the room enthusiastically, seeming to really enjoy my weekly afternoon art classes at a local art center, and I never once thought he was anything but happy to be there. As he worked on any of the projects we did, however, there was a single, insistent question he put to me over and over and over: Is this good?
I’ve been working with kids since 1993 and I’ve encountered many who crave the praise and approval of others in varying degrees. More often than not, it is girls who get going on one of my projects and show a need for constant coaching or cheerleading until I nicely but firmly tell them to just work as best as they can and that I won’t keep looking at something until they have it at least halfway done. This particular boy, though, gave me pause because no matter how I tried to turn it back to him (“There’s no right or wrong way to do this, What’s good is that you are having a good time making something, How do you feel about what you’re working on? Do you think it’s good?”), the question would come back at me again and again. He was unquenchable.
Good. What is “good” anyway?
Think about this… how many times, as parents or adults, do we tell a kid, “Good job!”? And, really, what does that mean? Does it have any real substance? Do we really even mean it? We say it without thinking because we’ve been led to believe that self-esteem is now the end-all, be-all important personality trait that will bring overall personal success and that constant compliments are part and parcel of making this happen. But saying “good job” says absolutely nothing about process, effort, or the thinking that went into something; nor does it give any degree of “goodness,” because the praise comes regardless of the actual quality of work. The child in my art class–and many like him now–show signs that they are so dependent on this shallow type of praise that they actually need it for self-maintenance. I’ve also noticed that there is an expected tone of voice and inflection that goes along with this kind of inauthentic praise and, now that I have become aware of it, I see the moments that I am about to deliver it simply because, well… it’s easy.
But what happens to kids who become dependent on shallow praise? With the approach of this year’s new school term, the New York Times published an article by social scientist and researcher, Ashley Merryman called, “Losing Is Good For You.” In it, she criticizes the now popular trend of participation trophies and medals, which I have long been an opponent of. Cheap, plastic and paper stuff made in China is now almost always distributed to just about anyone who just shows up to an event. Once upon a time I ran more competitively and, depending on how I’d trained for a race, I sometimes placed in my age group. As I approached the finish line, I could clearly see my race time in the distance and, as a runner, I would immediately know whether I had a chance or not at placing. At races where I ran more slowly I saw the other runners breeze past me long before I reached the finish and being handed a ribbon for nothing more than being there felt almost insulting. Indeed, Merryman’s research shows:
By age 4 or 5, children aren’t fooled by all the trophies. They are surprisingly accurate in identifying who excels and who struggles. Those who are outperformed know it and give up, while those who do well feel cheated when they aren’t recognized for their accomplishments. They, too, may give up. It turns out that, once kids have some proficiency in a task, the excitement and uncertainty of real competition may become the activity’s very appeal.
If children know they will automatically get an award, what is the impetus for improvement? Why bother learning problem-solving skills, when there are never obstacles to begin with?
So, over praise, it would seem, has the potential to make everyone mediocre. It also appears that it makes some kids overly cynical and some kids overly fragile. I have often wondered how this new self-esteem age we are in is related to the focus on, and reported rise of, bullying. Incidentally, the boy in my class mentioned that he’d just transferred schools that year because he “wasn’t treated nicely” at his other school. While it’s not popular to question anything about bullying, I’ve often wondered, in the same way I asked what is “good,” what is bad? Pointedly, if it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for our kids, are they being treated badly? To me, this train of thought runs almost straight into adulthood and the perceived need to always feel happy or take a pill that will get you there if you can’t.
Experts tell us to praise the effort rather than the product. They say that one of the worst things we can do is to praise the things that are innate–things like beauty, intelligence and strength–because doing so sets the child up for feeling ugly, stupid and weak when they fail. Which they will. Failure is inevitable. Some psychologists go so far as to say we ought not to “praise” our youngest children at all but rather acknowledge achievement with enthusiastic statements like, “You just learned how to ride that bike!”
It can feel strange to want to see a child succeed and then deny them of this thing we know as praise. But, it feels awesome to watch a kid work diligently on something, without the need of approval, and then radiate pride when they’ve truly done a good job.
TRY THIS WEEK: Think about how you praise the people in your life and question whether it is meaningful or shallow.