On praise


I’ve thought some more about praise and want to share some of my ruminations.  They’re rough — feel free to add your own thoughts on this topic.

In my last post, I talked about the powerful beneficial effect of having someone say just the right thing at just the right time.  That’s a long way from “unconditional positive regard.”

We should respect the gifts of others all the time.  Of course we should.   If your child is a gifted student, you should do whatever you can to help him or her achieve educational goals.  If your child is socially gifted, you should treat that as something worthy of respect as well.   Same goes for your friends.   We should all do what we can to encourage everyone we know to succeed at what they want to do.

However, I don’t think it’s a good idea to say to every child every day “I think you are wonderful.  You are a very special person.  I love you just the way you are.”  I think it produces children with lots of self-esteem, but no self-respect.  Does it really show adequate appreciation for the individual’s gifts?  Not to mention that  “unearned” praise raining down on you cannot begin to compete with the praise you earn.

You know the people who gush over you all the time?  Don’t you begin to feel manipulated?  Doesn’t it feel like it comes from their need to be loved and not an appreciation they feel for you?  Does it even matter what they say to you?

The most valuable compliment you can get is the one that comes from a person whose judgment you trust, and that validates something you believe or will believe and value, about yourself.   It comes at a time when it is needed.  I wouldn’t be remembering Miss Gurley’s comment if it hadn’t come on the heels of a nightmare year with Miss Martin.

It doesn’t need to come in a greeting card, or with flowery language.  It can be matter-of-fact and simple.  If it is heart-felt and honest, if it reflects a deeper understanding of who the other person really is, and is dispensed sparingly, I think it can work some magic.  It can change that person’s view of who he is  what he can do.

When I say I’m going to attempt to say these things more to the wonderful people in my life, I don’t mean I’m going to “say something nice to somebody every day.”  What I mean is that I’m not going to let one of those opportunities go by through neglect or laziness.  When it’s there, I’m going to say it.


3 responses »

  1. I think you make some really good points – especially about children. I’ve known parents who praise everything their kid does and worse – tells them everything that they do is “the best”. It sets an unrealistic expectation of life. No matter how good we are – we’ll never be “best” at everything. Most of us have to accept that, even when we try our best, there is usually someone better. That’s OK – we should learn to value our talents and try to learn from those individuals that we admire for being “better”. Growing up I had parents who expected a great deal from me. I used to think that nothing I did was good enough for them. I often swore that I would never treat my kids in a similar manner. The result of my upbringing? Being driven to do the best job I can in every situation. My kids were not pushed as I was and their grades reflected it. Luckily – example has some influence as well and our kids are successful. It’s a delicate balance – we should tell someone not only that they do a good job. but also that their efforts are appreciated. We should also be willing to give a little time to help someone develop a talent. There is nothing more powerful than kind words and praise from someone you respect.

  2. A lot of your ideas reflect the current research on praise, too. Many psychologists report that praise must feel genuine and non-controlling. In addition, praise that focuses on a person’s effort and effective strategies rather than on ability or external influences (ease, luck, etc.) show beneficial long-term effects like greater effort, persistence in the face of failure, and a concept that intelligence is developed rather than innate.

    I believe that general praise for a person (especially young children) is important for developing an overall sense of self-confidence and a drive to tackle challenges. But you do make the good point that too much praise (or too much vague, “you rock” praise can eventually become ineffective if not all-out controlling). Also, comparing a person to other’s (social-comparison praise) is definitely not the way to go, as I imagine you believe and are aware.

    Isn’t it interesting and funny how something that seems so harmless and that has (usually) good intentions can end up backfiring?

    • Thanks for your comments, Rae. It feels strange to thank another Rae. Did I see a Reed College email address? I have an old friend who went to Reed, and was one of a group of freshmen who stripped when they entered the student bookstore to protest a new “search all backpacks” policy. It made the national news, before you were born, of course. He’s a philosophy prof in Brazil now … Anyway, thanks for your comments. Feel free to visit again and comment on the new adventures of a couple of … um, well-seasoned friends.

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