How Praise Can Be Demotivating And What We Can Do Instead
Parents often believe that praise is the key to creating self-esteem in their child. This thinking is so common it deserves some lengthy evaluation.
In Nurture Shock, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explore many commonly assumed parenting “truths” by looking to emerging research. One of the many topics they look at is the changing concept of self-esteem. They explore the relationship between our culture’s declining regard towards hard work and their research which shows a steady decline in self-worth—this is because hard work often instills a sense of purpose. For example, they concluded that hard work has been replaced by recreation in many American families.
Another enlightening study reveals that praising accomplishments rather than praising effort often fosters a hunger for success at any cost. Children are more likely to cheat or choose a simple task to maintain the praise rather than attempt a more difficult task and risk losing their status as the “talented one.” Citing a study conducted at Columbia University where children were praised for success on a certain task, researchers found that such children chose to engage in less challenging activities. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
I often tell parents to stay a few steps away from their child’s accomplishments. Watch, observe, and let them make meaning out of their accomplishments. When I was a child, in Little League Baseball, I would find myself distracted by the encouragement of others. I started to pay so much attention to the crowd that I lost focus on what I was doing. It became more important for me to get a cheer than to execute the fundamentals of the game. Oftentimes, our children feel the same way. Be a quiet parent in the crowd.
Finally, I have come to the realization that our greatest contribution to esteem comes from connection. Seeing, understanding, and connecting to the child provides a sense in them that they are okay—that they are worthy of love and attention. When parents and children begin to equate praise with love and affection, the result is that the child feels valued only by their accomplishments. Thus, praise can strip a child of their most valuable worth—connection to others. As Jessica Benjamin suggests, it's very difficult to find one’s self until we are found by someone else. The root of the self is almost always found through someone else. The meaning of this is that if someone else connects with us without judgment (positive or negative), then we experience our inherent value. My dissertation studied the children of alcoholic parents in order to determine if that kind of upbringing led to a greater capacity for intimacy in adulthood. What we found over the course of that study was that if a child had one adult who understood them, then the effects of the alcoholic parent were mitigated.
During a course in my undergraduate degree, we learned about a model for categorizing and conceptualizing various styles of family systems. At the end of the model, the professor admitted, “But all this goes out the window in the face of anxiety.” At the time I thought, “What does anxiety have to do with this? How can anxiety be such a powerful force so as to wipe out this entire model?” As I have observed families over the years, the answer has become very clear. Anxiety and our fears about our children prevent our ability to see them and their needs clearly. It also suggests that they are not okay or that the world is a scary place. Simply put, our anxieties, disappointments, frustrations are internalized by the child as “I am not okay.” When we react to their struggles and failings from a place of anxiety, because our agenda is their safety and security, we fail to connect and see the origin of their struggle, which are their wounds. We focus on behavior compliance and success and miss “seeing the child” and connecting. We tell them that the part of them that is coming out in their symptoms is bad, rather than learning to listen to what that behavior could be telling us. We lose our vision, our creativity, our resourcefulness as we respond to the pain or the threat of pain by trying to prevent it.
As parents, we can learn to listen in order to connect. We can learn to listen without judgment, without fear, without control. We can practice the skill of listening. We can learn to clear our mind of rebuttals, of arguments, of corrections, of retorts. We can hear our children. Some time ago, I was driving with my 3-year-old daughter. As we approached a stoplight, she said, “Red means go; green means stop.” I gently taught her the correct association of the stoplights and wondered how all those hours of watching Dora the Explorer had failed us. A few days later, the interaction repeated itself. Finally, looking back in the rearview mirror, I saw her looking out the window to the right, to the stoplight perpendicular to ours—“Green means stop, daddy.” She was right. The light, in her view, showed green when we stopped, and red when we accelerated. I just needed to take a moment to see it through her eyes.
My therapist described a client she had seen years ago. This client grew up on a farm near a river in Germany. During the course of her analysis, she would float back and forth sharing stories between her early childhood and the present day. One afternoon, while the client was telling a story, it was not clear if the story was from the past or the present. Without asking the client, this gifted therapist said, “I knew she was talking about her childhood because I could smell the river near her childhood home.” (The Journey of the Heroic Parent)
We too can achieve this method of communication by teaching reflective or active listening to our families. Again, these skills are simply where the listener “repeats back” or summarizes what he or she has heard. The goal of this skill is to provide a place for the thoughts and feelings of the sender to be heard. It does not guarantee connection or change, but it is a simple method that helps with improving listening. Our culture emphasizes talking so much that we have lost the art of listening.
In the movie Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore explores the heartbreaking story of the Columbine tragedy. Apparently, the shooters were fans of Marilyn Manson, the infamous shock-rocker. Manson was blamed, among others, for his negative influence as a role model and through his lyrics. In an interview, Moore asked Manson what he might have said to these two young men if he could have talked to them before that fateful morning. Manson replied, “I wouldn't have said anything to them. I would have listened.”
What gets in the way of our listening? Usually, we are preparing a defense—making a statement or a conversation about ourselves. We are afraid of our child’s pain and what it would mean about us if we couldn’t fix it. We experience shame when we associate their struggles with our worth as a parent. Or maybe we are thinking of the situation as a time to lecture or teach. In any case, we are not connecting to the other—we are instead focusing on ourselves. I jokingly say that what allows me to hear my wife is pretending that she is talking about some other idiot husband, and I am then therefore capable of hearing what she has to say.
In her landmark book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller observes,
“If a child is lucky enough to grow up with a mirroring, available mother [parent] who is at the child’s disposal—that is, a child’s development—then healthy self-feeling can gradually develop in the growing child. Ideally, this mother should also provide the necessary emotional climate and understanding of the child’s needs. But even a mother who is not especially warmhearted can make this development possible if only she refrains from preventing it and allows the child to acquire from other people what she herself lacks.”
It is our great gift to be in the life of our children. It is our gift to be present with them and to hold them in our minds with love and non-judgment. It is as simple as this: how we think about our children is how they will come to think of themselves. Self-esteem doesn’t come when we are told or learn we are great—that is tentative and fleeting and must be maintained by ignoring or splitting off parts of our unwanted and unacceptable parts. Esteem comes when we find our whole selves in the grace and acceptance of another. By listening, connecting, understanding, hearing, and validating, our children are better able to find themselves, and from this place, they can come to believe they are okay and heal any wounds that lie beneath their problem behaviors.
 Bronson & Merryman, 2009