A note about this post: Fair warning… it’s long. Once I started researching I realized that this topic really has legs. I’ve done my best to keep it organized and concise, but in order to do this post justice I felt compelled to go beyond my typical 600 words and really delve into the many important aspects of this topic. In case you haven’t been following along, you can click here to read my first post on children and achievement, and to learn why I’ve published two posts on the same topic in the first place.
Once again, it starts with Lindsey’s post on achievement last week. In her discussion of the film “The Race to Nowhere” Lindsey addressed the multi-faceted nature of achievement and identity. While she clarified that we can damage our kids by fostering the belief that their value is tied exclusively to their achievement, Lindsey pointed out that high standards are not always a bad thing. I agreed, and wondered why we are reluctant to set a high bar for our kids.
My suspicion was that by ever praising children, even when their performance doesn’t warrant it, we actually undermine their desire to achieve in the first place. If “everybody is a winner” then why bother to actually win? Of course I don’t believe everything is a win/lose situation, but the stark language highlights my point. Whether we are talking about sports, grades, standardized test scores, musical instruments, or even something highly subjective like art, various levels of achievement do exist. And if we offer our praise unconditionally then children can quickly determine that there’s no need to go to all that effort if the pats on the back come free.
Neuro-researcher David Rock makes the point that, “When kids are praised for everything and told they are ‘special’ it does two things: It reduces their desire to put in effort, and it reduces their ability to self-regulate because they don’t get to challenge themselves. Yet self-regulation appears to be the dramatically central player in whether people succeed or not.” Rock hints at something here. In these scenarios filled with unearned praise kids miss out on something very important: actual mastery. Kids will accept our praise regardless of circumstances. But if we dole it out indiscriminately they will never have to work for it, and, in turn, they will never know the incredible experience of conquering something.
As stated by the Sydney Morning Herald (this is not a uniquely American problem), “The belief that regular praise will improve the self-esteem of students has backfired, with educators urging over-anxious parents to let their children fail so they can learn from their mistakes.” But in order for any child to learn from his mistakes, he must first be allowed to make them. How does anyone learn the fine art of picking up, dusting off, and carrying on if not from experience? Rod Kefford, the headmaster of a Sydney day and boarding school put a finer point on it. “If we are serious about building resilience, we have to let them fail.”
Resilience is a refrain common to this discussion. We want our kids to develop coping mechanisms, but we protect them from the very situations that build them. Tufts University psychology professor David Elkind agrees, “Kids need to feel badly sometimes. We learn through experience and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope.”
Interestingly, the ironic truth of the matter is that with helicopter parenting we squelch the very thing we hope to develop. “Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan has shown unequivocally that what creates anxious children is parents hovering and protecting them from stressful experiences,” Psychology Today’s article on “wimpy” kids tells us. This shielding fosters fear in kids. When we protect them from stress early in life, they don’t learn how to deal with it, and often ultimately become withdrawn, shy, and introverted.
Going back to the issue of empty praise for a moment, though, I think there is another issue at hand: kids aren’t stupid. They know when they’re being patronized. When Larry Summers became president of Harvard University in the summer of 2001 he learned that 94% of graduating seniors had “earned” honors distinctions. It doesn’t take a Harvard education to know that the honor doesn’t mean much at that point. So what message does it send to kids and teens when we tell them ad nauseum that they are special?
I will take an example from my own life. I used to know a girl (we’ll call her Katie). Katie was bright, interesting, and very sweet. And yet her self-esteem was virtually nonexistent. One day I asked her boyfriend (also a friend of mine – we’ll call him Ben) how someone so smart, personable, and pretty could think so little of herself. He explained that she grew up with a mother who inundated her with the message that she was brilliant and wonderful and could be whatever she wanted to be. It sounds great on the surface but Ben (in a psychology PhD program at the time) gave an example of its detriment. He said, “I could say to Katie’s mom, ‘I’m never going to be an astronaut and that really bums me out.’ And Katie’s mom would say, ‘But of course you can, Ben. You can be whatever you want to be!’ The fact is, I can’t be an astronaut. I don’t have the interest or education, and I’m probably too old to shift gears at this point anyway. But Katie’s mom is so set on being supportive that she can’t be honest. After 20 years of that, Katie got the message that all praise is completely hollow, and now she doesn’t believe anything positive or affirming that is said to her.”
Katie wasn’t stupid. Neither are the bottom decile of Harvard grads who walk with honors. And neither are the countless other kids who are fed well-intentioned-but-ultimately-damaging hot air by their parents every day.
The last component of this issue is the most difficult for me to address, partly because it’s uncomfortable and partly because I have little experience with it. The problems I’ve highlighted to this point are problems of privilege. Any kid whose risk factors include too much praise and support is probably leading a pretty easy life. But there are 15 millions American kids who live in poverty. That’s about 21% of our nation’s kids. Most of them don’t have access to well-funded educational or extra-curricular programming. And there are many of them who hear no praise; who get no support.
The National Center for Children in Poverty’s website tells me that:
- At age 4 years, children who live below the poverty line are 18 months below what is normal for their age group.
- By the third grade middle-income kids’ vocabularies are three times larger than the vocabularies of kids from low-income families.
- Early learning classrooms comprised of about 60 percent of children from low-income homes were rated significantly lower in quality indicators of teaching, teacher-child interaction, and provisions for learning than classrooms with fewer low-income children.
These are real problems without easy solutions, but studies have shown that they are not insurmountable. As you might expect, the needs of these kids differ vastly from those of their more privileged peers. Research tells us that, “Children make academic gains when they have teachers that encourage communication and reasoning, are sensitive to their interactions with children, and construct an atmosphere of respect, encouragement, and enthusiasm for learning.”
Psychology Today endorses this view. Its “wimpy kids” article concludes with this thought: “Parental anxiety has its place. But the way things now stand, it’s not being applied wisely. We’re paying too much attention to too few kids—and in the end, the wrong kids. There are kids who are worth worrying about—kids in poverty. We focus so much on our own children. … It’s time to begin caring about all children.”
Interestingly enough, though, even in the face of incredible challenges, the NCCP still calls for high standards to be set for low-income kids. In its list of Take Home Messages it advises that, “Teachers and administrators need to set high expectations for what all young children can and should learn.” Apparently lowering the bar is never the right answer.
As I’ve thought about this issue throughout the week I’ve tried to envision what tack I will take with my own kids. Here is where I have landed: I will tell them I love them as often as I want to, which will almost assuredly be more than they want to hear it. I will praise their accomplishments (real accomplishments) but I will not intervene to prevent their failures. I will push them when I see unrealized potential paired with moments of mastery and moments of joy. I will not push them if they are miserable because their interests and aptitudes are not aligned with their activities. I will acknowledge effort and hard work. I will turn their attention to character as well as performance. I will understand that kids are not one-size-fits-all and I will adjust my approach for each kid at each phase of his/her life. And, most importantly, I will fail at each of these things more than once, and that’s okay too.
None of it this is easy. But I believe we can only come closer to the right answer when we ask the hard questions.