Educational Theory

The conundrum of praise

Most of us (I would hope) are lucky enough to remember a point in our childhood where we were praised for doing something well, and it felt good. For those of us who lacked this feeling in early childhood it is increasingly well documented how this can lead to an ongoing need for parental approval, sometimes even lasting after the death of the parent in question. When siblings are involved, the often unspoken competition becomes even more complex, becoming a sink or swim scenario in many families.

At the root of all of this is something deceptively simple: praise. When we are told that we have done something well, and we agree with this assessment, the feeling is an overwhelmingly good one. From my own experiences, and as I talk more with others in class and outside of class, I realise that the problem arises when we don’t agree with that assessment.

As a child I had very little sense of being better or worse than someone else. When someone did be me in a competition, it was clear it was because they practised more, were bigger than me, or had better luck. This did not strike me as particularly special. Yet if I won and was praised, I was left with a feeling of immense guilt- I did not feel I had done something special, yet I am rewarded for it. It goes without saying that this is most confusing to a developing mind.

Children learn fast, and this ‘doublethink’ process is suppressed. Our innate understanding of other’s abilities is replaced by a socially and culturally defined map of achievement and reward. In suppressing our understanding of other’s abilities we concurrently lose our sense of our own abilities, and the joy of expanding them.

If you were to go to any community choir in this or any other country and take a quick poll of how many people had learnt an instrument or sung as a child but stopped at some point as a teenager or young adult, you would be surprised at the homogeny of the results. As one might expect, many people quit music because someone told them they were ‘bad’, or to ‘shut up’. Yet maybe unexpectedly, some quit because the inverse was true. They were praised and encouraged to continue, until ennui overcame momentum and discipline, and the music is gradually forgotten, to be remembered only wistfully.

When you praise a child for something that it does easily you cheapen the ability and steal its joy. You tell the child that it has done something difficult, when the child knows it has done something easy. Try seeing this from another perspective- as an expert in your field, how would you value the praise of someone who had no familiarity with your field? In the same vein, let  us be more careful when imposing reward systems on children both in and out of the classroom.


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