While cruising Reddit the other day I discovered a parenting article about the power and perils of praise. It got me thinking about my own complicated relationship with praise, effort, and accomplishment, and the skills I would like to help Lyra and Pandra learn when it comes to dealing with these things.
In short, the article talks about studies that suggest that praising children constantly for the things they are in an effort to build their self esteem may actually be creating problems in the long-term with their ability to work hard, follow through, and be successful. It’s not necessarily all about the self esteem. Kids need to learn how to be proud of their own efforts, instead of the results of them.
It’s hard, as a parent, to not praise your kids for everything. The author of the article addresses that, too. You really want to support them and show them that they’re awesome, so you tell them they’re smart when they figure something out, they’re strong when they do something that was hard for them, and so on. But what the studies suggest is that this isn’t the right approach, and that we’re potentially creating people who need constant praise and approval, as well as the feeling that they’re good at something without trying, instead of people who work hard at something that doesn’t come easily and find happiness in their own efforts rather than the recognition of others.
I’ve seen it in action in plenty of adults. And I’ve got my own personal demons when it comes to looking for approval and praise, although I don’t think, in my case, it’s because of an over-abundance of praise received as a child.
My history of feeling bad at everything
I may not remember things as they exactly were, but in my memory, praise was never given easily or lightly. It was a rare commodity when I was a child, and more often I remember being on the receiving end of comments that made me feel like nothing I did could ever be good enough, if I got any response at all. This made me desperate for praise and approval from anyone who would provide it.
In elementary school I remember wanting to be asked to read aloud in class because I knew I was good at it, and I loved doing it because I was good at it. But I never felt like I got asked. It seemed to me that the kids who weren’t good at it got asked way more than I did, and it was frustrating. Looking back, of course, I can see that the logical thing for a teacher to do would be to give the opportunity to students who needed the extra practice, but to a young, insecure girl who wanted to show that she was good at something it always felt like I was being ignored.
Throughout most of my school years, from elementary to high school, this trend continued. I wanted, desperately, to be singled out and told I was good at something — anything — because at home I never felt like I was good enough. I can remember with a vivid clarity the day I was walking around the house, singing the entire soundtrack to the Little Mermaid. I was probably around fourteen years old, and my self esteem was already low, but I felt like singing was something I was good at. I was, and I still am, and singing always made me happy. But on that day, as I danced around the house pretending to be Ariel, dreaming that someday I would grow up to be a voice-over artist for cartoon musicals (yes, that was a ‘when-I-grow-up’ dream of mine) I was shattered by one offhand comment from a parental unit.
The girl in the movie does it better.
From a sibling, the comment would have been easy to shrug off. From a parent? Well, I pretended it didn’t bother me, but I was devastated. I started to avoid singing when people were home, and wanted badly to hear words of praise for something I thought I was good at — but began to believe I wasn’t. The slightest criticism of my singing made me flush with shame and embarrassment.
It wasn’t just singing. This sort of offhand criticism had been going on for years. I wrote a song when I was six years old that I sang for my family, and was told outright that I stole it. Didn’t write another one until I was 21, and still feel the pain of that accusation to the point that I just don’t play or sing the songs I write. Ever.
Slowly, with everything I was slightly good at, I convinced myself I wasn’t anything special or that I was actually bad. I waited and hoped that someone would recognize I was good at things — music, writing, photography, or anything else I showed promise with — because I believed that I needed that approval and praise to prove to myself that I was worthwhile. Other people had to believe in me before I could believe in myself.
The kind of approval I needed — a direct assurance that I was good at things — never came from my teachers. Maybe they assumed I knew already, because my marks were good in those areas. I’m sure they didn’t know the kind of response I got to being good at things from home — indifference to criticism — so how could they know that I felt broken inside, and that I couldn’t ever be good enough at anything? And they probably didn’t realize that those good marks I got were mostly achieved without any real effort on my part. I try not to think about how good I might have been at school if I had put some effort into anything. I wanted them to tell me outright what I was good at, because then I thought I might try harder at that one thing. They didn’t, and I didn’t.
It didn’t come from family either. All I got from that corner was indifference at best.
As an adult, it slowly started to come from friends, some of whom eventually buckled under the weight of my neediness, I think, and drifted away from me. There’s only so long you can tell someone they aren’t useless before you get frustrated with their inability to believe you, and stop trying. And then sometimes it would come from jobs.
Wherever I found this praise and approval, I would cling to it. It was never healthy — sometimes it got me into a lot of trouble — and I turned into someone who required praise to feel like I was good at anything.
When things got hard, I would quit
The side-effect of this was that if I wasn’t automatically so good at something that I could receive accolades for my skill, I simply wouldn’t continue doing that thing. The effort of learning something that I wasn’t already good at wasn’t worthwhile to me. I missed out on the opportunity to learn so many things, and get better at so many others, just because they were a little bit (or a lot) hard in the beginning.
In college, there were projects I never even started because they were too hard, and collaborations I avoided because I didn’t think I was good enough for anyone to want my contributions.
In work situations, there were jobs that I walked away from because I would have to learn and do new things that were challenging and difficult.
In daily life, I would try an activity once, determine that I wasn’t an instant prodigy, and abandon it.
This went on for years. And then, at some point, I started to change.
Maybe it began when I decided to get rid of my phone phobia by taking on a reception coverage job. I hated the phone passionately. I would get a panic attack every time it rang. So my self-diagnosed medication was to get comfortable with the phone by making it my job to use it. It worked. I got over the phobia (and instead developed a hatred of talking on the phone, but that’s an entirely different issue).
I started mountain biking years ago. The whole idea terrified me in theory, but I tried it because Adam wanted to get into it and I wanted to do something with him. I wasn’t very good. I kept trying it, and fell down a lot. I moved to British Columbia, and realized that mountain biking on real mountains + a fear of heights don’t mix. I kept riding. I got myself hurt. I kept riding. I got better. I’m still not very good, but I kept going out there, afraid of hurting myself or worse every time. But I figured out, somehow, that the actual riding is a whole lot of fun. Mountain biking may be the first thing I’ve tried, sucked at, and kept doing anyway — all for the sake of the effort, the trying, for getting better at it and for the joy I feel when I ride really well. I came to terms with not being a prodigy, not being among the best at it — I never will be. But it’s fun, even if I’m not the best.
That lesson took me until my late twenties to learn.
I backslide sometimes — especially at work, when I realize that I want to do something well simply because I want my manager or co-workers to rain accolades on me, and reassure me of my awesomeness. It’s a hard lesson that I keep having to learn, wanting to do something because it’s worth the effort.
Praise, approval, and my own children
So I’ve said a whole lot about myself and my experience with self esteem issues, praise, and approval. But how can I use what I know to help my children be better at this than I am? Because, ultimately, I want my kids to be better at me than everything.
The article I linked at the beginning suggests praising a child’s process and effort, rather than the outcomes or their skills directly. For example, rather than saying “You’re so smart!” as a general concept that might leave a kid thinking “I’m smart, that means I don’t have to work hard at things” a parent could say “You did a great job working so hard on that tough math homework.”
It seems like a good approach to me. I want my kids to learn that hard work will get them far. They might have some uncanny talent that takes very little training, but practising that talent will make them better. And they’ll also have a hundred things that don’t come easy. I want them to feel the satisfaction of working hard to accomplish something, or to feel pride that they overcame their fears to do something awesome. I want them to be determined to succeed, not necessarily for the sake of success and the praise it will bring them — that praise might be empty and unfulfilling. I want them to be proud of the work they’ve done to get something.
I want them to not give up on something just because it’s hard.
I want to give them the tools to be better than I was.