To praise or not to praise? A much-discussed book published last fall called NurtureShock, New Thinking about Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman offers compelling, but in my opinion not surprising, evidence of an epidemic of unhelpful overpraising among parents.
I take a fairly firm stance when it comes to praising. Observation has convinced me that constantly bolstering a child’s efforts and performance with effusive compliments doesn’t have any particularly positive effect.
Like most kids, when my children were in preschool they loved to paint and draw. The current party line in child-development circles seems to be that the best way to praise a child’s artistic efforts is not with an all-encompassing “Beautiful drawing!” but instead with a targeted comment meant to demonstrate how carefully you contemplated the masterpiece: “What an interesting use of dark blue.” I’ve always been hesitant to praise my children for something that they are doing for fun, though. They draw because they like to; why do they need special recognition from me at all?
I prefer to use praise as a tool for reinforcing desirable behaviors. I praise my son for the patience he shows helping his younger sister when I know he’d rather be doing something else; I praise both kids for clearing the table when I’ve asked them to. I praise my daughter for dressing herself because I know she’d much rather have my help with this task. But artwork? That’s their choice. I want them to do it because they enjoy it, not because I’ll admire the results.
Merryman and Bronson focus one segment of their research on the value (or lack thereof) of telling children they are smart. I’m not sure I’ve ever told my kids they are smart. For one thing, I consider smart a relative term: to me it means that a child is showing intellectual or perceptive capability beyond what is typical for his age group. Do my kids excel mentally compared to other children? I don’t honestly know; I don’t have the expertise to compare them with other kids their age. But in any case, it’s not something I would praise them for. As with coloring, they analyze things and work out intellectual challenges because they want to, not because I’ve reinforced the behavior with compliments.
Holly has recently started a pottery class. At the end of each weekly meeting, she shows me what she worked on that day. What I want her to get from the class is the satisfaction of creating something with her hands and the sense that she is exploring new artistic arenas, not the belief that she is a terrific sculptor. So I commend the projects themselves rather than the results: “How fun that you got to try the wheel! What a great idea to have the class make clay food!” My hope is that this gives her the sense that she is doing something she enjoys, not something at which she’s necessarily talented. If I can teach her a sense of commitment and persistence to working at the things she cares about, that’s far more valuable to me than bolstering her self-image.