Author Po Bronson believes that kids today hear too much praise – much of it unearned. He says that praise does not, in fact, lead to self-esteem and achievement as many parents seem to believe.
“Children today hear so much praise that they have decoded its real meaning. When kids fail and all we do is praise them, there’s a lot of duplicity in that.”
They pick up the message that in the long run it does not really matter whether you did well, or really messed up.
Bronson says he first became aware of the issue of overpraise as the coach of his son’s kindergarten soccer team.
“Until that point, I was telling the kids constantly, ‘You’re great, you’re doing well’ – even when they were dribbling the wrong way on the field.” But once he read the research on the praise, Bronson decided to change the way he spoke to kids.
Instead of offering praise indiscriminately, Bronson focused on saying things that the kids would perceive as sincere.
“Over time, I learned to let kids develop their own judgment about how well they had done,” he says.
Dr. Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia had studied the effect of praise on students in 20 New York schools. A series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders shows that prior to these experiments, praise for intelligence had been shown to boost children’s confidence.
However, Dweck suspected this would backfire the first moment kids experienced failure or difficulty.
So the team divided the students into groups and gave them an easy puzzle to complete. Some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”
Then the researchers gave the students a choice of tests for the second round.
One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they would learn a lot from attempting the first puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first.
Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the copout.
Why did this happen? “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, do not risk making mistakes.” That is what the fifth-graders had done. They had chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.
There is a great lesson in this research for all of us. Honesty is still the best policy even for raising our children. The Book of Sirach says, “Honesty comes home to those who practice it.” (Sir. 27:9) Jesus told us, “Let your words be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Matt. 5:37)
We have to willing to accept ourselves with our gifts and our shortcomings. I like what Anna Quindlen said about relationships: “Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work.”
We can say the same thing about life: some things are difficult and we have to work at them to overcome the obstacles. We all can put our unique human potential into action to get the desired result. Some things will come easy; some things will be difficult. Our positive attitude will affect the way we deal with all of life.
Jesus told us, “The truth will make you free.” (John 8:32) Honesty is the best medicine for all of life especially in dealing with our youth.