Praise and Criticism

I recently came across an interesting article on the Child Mind Institute website discussing the question “Are Our Children Overpraised?”  The author, a psychologist, takes issue with all the warnings to parents in recent years about the dangers of praise.  The culprit is said to be “empty praise”, when children are told they are wonderful or special when they have not done anything wonderful or special.  This kind of praise is said to create increased anxiety, and undermine initiative and confidence, even though the objective is to accomplish the opposite.

This article seeks to counter these ideas, and expresses the view that too much criticism rather than too much praise causes even more difficulties.  In the author’s experience, children who are unable to sustain effort in the face of frustration or disappointment, and those with attitudes of entitlement, have been over-criticized rather than over-praised.  He speaks to the fact that all children need praise and from early on look to us, their parents, for praise and approval.

It would seem that the question is not really whether praise or criticism is more significant in children’s development, but rather what kind of praise and what kind of criticism.  There seems to be general agreement that “empty praise” is either meaningless, or in the worst case, destructive.  What is “empty praise?”  One phrase I hear over and over again from parents, and even teachers, is “Good job”.  It is said so automatically, almost like “bless you” when someone sneezes, and often seems to have no real relationship to what the child has done.

The point has often been made that praising children for real effort is more meaningful than praising them for an achievement that is appropriately expected, not something special.  Children too readily get the idea that certain accomplishments are a result of being talented, or smart, rather than having required effort.  A while back I wrote about two young people I spoke to who compared themselves unfavorably to others of their peers.  One of them attributed a friend’s high grades to his special ability to read something once and remember it for a test.  The other thought his own high grades were due to great effort rather than being as smart as others with those grades.  Special ability or being “smart” seemed more highly valued than effort.

On the other hand, I spoke to a young girl whose parents had discussed with me her academic difficulties upon transferring to a new school.  A recent report showed much improvement and I told her that I had heard a rumor that she is doing really well in school.  She indignantly said that it was not a rumor, that she is doing well in school.  I explained that a rumor did not mean it wasn’t true but only that I didn’t hear it from her directly.  She then spontaneously told me that she had been having difficulty with reading and math but had received help from a tutor and now she is doing well.  She further said that she thought she needed a little more help in math and was getting it. 

It was striking that this child was matter-of-fact in talking about her difficulties and also proud of having overcome them to the extent that she had.  She had experienced the positive side of having made progress with additional help and her own effort.  Too often we are concerned that a child will lose confidence when difficulties are acknowledged.  In fact children know all too well when something is difficult for them and are relieved when it is recognized and help offered.    

How does criticism fit into the picture?  Criticism does not have to mean avoiding acknowledging when correction or improvement is needed.  Too often it is the way criticism is expressed that is hurtful.  This happens when the criticism becomes a global comment about behavior or performance, suggesting that a child is simply bad, or incompetent.  It helps to focus on how something can be done better next time, rather than on how badly it was done this time.

This comes up especially in reference to social behavior.  It is easy to fall into a critical response when children don’t share, are mean to a sibling, or neglect a responsibility they have at home.  If we find ourselves constantly criticizing a child for such behavior it helps if we take time out and try to think through what the problem may actually be.  Are our expectations unrealistic?  Does a child feel unjustly criticized and is expressing resentment?  Or is more parental support needed to help a child move forward?

Often the question of rewards and punishment comes up in this connection.  The thought is that some concrete reward, like money or a wanted toy, might provide the motivation that would help children improve their performance.   The problem with this is that it can lead to the idea that an external reward of some kind is the reason to do  things.  Instead of children experiencing pleasure in their own achievements, the pleasure is attached to a reward, which is then expected.

Let’s not forget that starting when children are very young, a parent’s approval or praise is the greatest reward to a child.   Eventually, that can become his approval of himself, which in turn becomes genuine self confidence.  So the issue of praise and criticism is actually a matter of real – not empty – praise, and positive – not negative – criticism.

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