When is praise positive or negative?
Spring sports are in high gear. Parents are lining soccer and baseball fields watching their kids practice and play competitive sports. It’s fun for everyone, except when you’re watching your kids play soccer in the pouring rain! It’s great to see kids running up and down the field, instead of sitting in front of an electronic screen playing video games. Team sports can teach children a wide range of skills and abilities that are very useful in adult life.
But parents sometimes wonder which behaviors should they praise--effort, participation, performance, attitude, or team spirit? For example, in the past, trophies were a rare reward, only given out to the top players and teams. But today, they are frequently given to all of the kids for just participating. Indeed, trophy and award sales are now an estimated 3 billion dollar a year industry!
Of course, everyone appreciates the acknowledgment. But when is recognition and praise for simply showing up overdone? Clearly, some children are more talented, successful, and motivated than other youngsters on the playing field. Everyone knows who these kids are. Shouldn’t these youngsters receive more recognition?
Furthermore, there is some evidence that simply praising one’s innate abilities, while pleasing, can have negative consequences as well. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, found that while children appreciate the praise, they may fall apart at the first experience of real challenge. They become demoralized by failure.
Some freshmen in college used to receiving good grades, praise, and reward for simply doing their work in high school, find themselves doing poorly when significantly more effort is required.
In my first year of college, I received my very first “F” on an English paper. I was shocked and angered! I had never received a failing grade! I stormed into my professor’s office and demanded an explanation; after all, I reasoned, many of my ideas were first-rate. He looked at me squarely in the face and said, “It’s because your paper is a piece of garbage—filled with spelling mistakes, poor grammar, and disconnected ideas. If you want to do well in my class, you have to do better than this!” I was humbled. I went back to the drawing board and got a B on my next paper.
Let’s face it, adults experience setbacks regularly. Losing occurs more often than winning. Learning how to cope with obstacles, challenges, and loss is probably far more important than feeling good about showing up. Sure showing up is necessary—but it’s not sufficient for success. Achievement in life comes from learning and growing from bumps in the road and sticking with it when the going gets tough.
Parents naturally want to nurture a positive self-image in their children. We want them to feel good about themselves. We want them to have self-confidence. But how do we help them develop these traits—especially in areas where they may lack talent? Overdoing praise may not be the ticket for admission for a successful adult life. Indeed, it may nurture over-confidence, which can have negative consequences.
When we tell our kids that we are pleased when they “do the best they can”, how do we know that they did the best they could? Can we really measure effort and motivation? I was a solid B student in High School. Grades weren’t that important to me. I didn’t put in much effort.
These are challenging questions for parents—what do want to praise?
In my book, sticking with challenging tasks, putting in the time, hard work, and team spirit are important components for future success on the adult playing field.