Are We Ruining Our Children with Too Much Praise?

 When my daughter came home from her third-grade sports day with a plastic gold medal, I asked her what she had won it for.

“We all got a medal,” she beamed.

I looked at my husband, who had been at her school all day cheering her on.

“They got a medal just for showing up?” I asked.

He didn’t seem to think there was a problem with this, but it niggled at me for weeks. I couldn’t help wondering about the kids who are genuinely gifted in the 30-yard dash or at jumping over hurdles. How would they feel being awarded the same medal as the ones who have zero interest in running and jumping or are just not that good at it? Have we reached the point where we can’t be honest about our children’s skills and limitations?

Educators and psychologists have debated the subject of praising children just for showing up for decades. You often hear comments like, “We are in a new age of narcissism” or, “We are entering a new me generation.” Is there, in fact, a connection between entitlement and how much praise we give our children? If so, what can we, as parents, caregivers, and educators do about it?

Studies show that feedback is a necessary component in a child’s sense of self-worth. But they don’t seem to need praise in order to thrive.

Although the debate is far from over, well-accepted studies in this area come to the conclusion that, yes, in many ways our well-intentioned tendency to lavish our offspring with praise is fueling a generation of narcissists. I am still not happy with the “gold medal for all” approach to sports day, but I have to grapple with the fact that many of us live in a society that values praise over engagement and end goals over process.

• • •

In the 1960s and 70s, the cultural pendulum had swung a great distance from the Victorian idea that sparing the rod would spoil the child. We had, thankfully, moved from seeing children as little adults who could be sent down the mines, to viewing them more or less as equals. Child-led learning was gaining ground; parents told their kids to call them Carol and Bob, not Mom and Dad. The issue of praise has swung alongside the pendulum: Gone is the Dickensian approach of “building character” through coldness and disinterest, but parents and teachers are now beginning to question the “everything is great” mode. We have shifted toward a middle ground, one where we understand that feedback is good, but praise does not always bring about the outcome we hope it will.

The educational psychologist Jere Brophy, writing in the Elementary School Journal, provides an example of a well-meaning statement we can all relate to:

“Tom, how much is eight times seven? … Right. Jane, nine times six? … Okay. Bill, do you know how much is two times two? … Good, Bill! That’s exactly right! Nancy, how much is nine times eight? … Right.”

At its core, this example evinces the desire to boost a pupil’s confidence by using praise. But Brophy notes that this method of praising will probably “backfire, causing the recipients pain or embarrassment rather than making them feel good.” This is because praise on its own is not enough. The quality, context, and intention behind the praise matter, too. Bill correctly works out a very easy problem and is given extra accolades; meanwhile, his classmates have managed much more difficult ones but are shown less approval. This undermines the child’s trust in the person praising their efforts, thus devaluing the praise.

Studies show that feedback is a necessary component in the building of a child’s sense of self-worth. But, interestingly, students do not seem to need praise in order to thrive. Feedback is distinct from praise in that it engages with a child’s efforts rather than simply passing a value judgment on them.

In more recent studies, another danger emerges: Approval itself can become the “extrinsic reward,” the end goal. A child who is praised often will begin to crave the satisfaction he or she gets from pleasing their parent, teacher, or caregiver. Instead of doing something for the pure joy of it, the child will begin to do it simply for the praise. This is not a healthy cycle, and it can turn children into approval addicts. Their worth comes from the recognition they get rather than an inner sense of achievement or fulfilment.

In addition, there is some research showing that intrinsic motivating factors, such as wanting to learn the meaning of a difficult word or getting lost in the act of painting simply for the pleasure it brings, are incompatible with extrinsic factors. Writing in the Educational Psychology Review, Martin V. Covington and Kimberly J. Müeller take this idea further, positing that “when teachers attempt to encourage intrinsic behavior directly—for example, by acknowledging students for pursuing already established interests such as poetry writing—then ironically, these activities may be discouraged….Such discouragement is believed to occur because the offering of additional rewards devalues an already self-justifiable activity, which from the student’s perspective translates as, ‘If someone has to pay me for doing this, it must not be worth doing for its own sake.’”

If praise becomes the focus for preschoolers, and then shifts into wanting those gold stars at elementary school, it can then segue into craving the top grades in high school. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but all we are doing is training our children to attain goals rather than to pursue learning for its own sake. In fact, a study of college students found that they rated “achieving the highest grade possible” as their main reason for learning. Things like “increasing one’s knowledge” or “undertaking work as a matter of personal challenge” rated much lower in their priorities.

How do we foster in our children a desire to learn, rather than a desire to please us?

Although in some educational situations, some amount of praise can lead to short-term results, “these gains are countered by lower levels of motivation for continued learning.” There is evidence that “the more children are induced to do something for a reward, whether the reward is tangible or verbal, the more they show a diminished interest the next time they do it.”

So how do we foster in our children a desire to learn, rather than a desire to please us? One simple way is to praise the effort over the outcome. Not only does this encourage them to keep doing whatever it is, it takes the focus away from “good” and “bad,” placing it on the idea that working toward something can be its own reward. In other words, instead of thinking about praising our children, we should be concentrating on encouraging them. Some psychologists are keen to emphasize that we need to provide specific feedback rather than overall generalizations. We should also work toward creating an atmosphere where children feel safe making mistakes. Failure is part of the process of learning and is something we often overlook.

Psychologists suggest using “sincere, direct comments” in a “natural voice.” In other words, try not to say you think something’s great if you don’t, and don’t overdo the enthusiasm. It can be tricky: When I am confronted at the school gates with a robot made out of All-Bran boxes, my first thought is, “Oh dear, just one more thing to clutter up the house.” The object may not display any sort of skill or be particularly nice to look at, but my daughter might be quite proud of her creation. Asking her about it is a better tactic rather than wading in with disingenuous positive comments. Encouraging her to tell me about her process saves me from making insincere remarks.

Although most parents and educators agree that some praise, or, more precisely, “positive encouragement,” is critical to developing children’s self-esteem, the keys are to limit it, to keep it focused, and to be honest with it. If we applaud everything our children do simply because they have done it, then we are teaching them that mere existence is enough. This leads to entitlement and narcissism, not self-assurance and confidence. We underestimate how much children can see through dishonesty. They so often know what we really think, and it’s important for them to trust us.

In our fast-paced technological age, we are witnessing an upsurge in what some see as the normalization of narcissism—not garden-variety self-regard, but pathological self-absorption. And I can’t help but make the connection between a generation of approval-needy children and one of parents whose heads are buried in their smartphones. Perhaps, while we are simply too busy to notice, we are using praise as a sort of shorthand: the “like” button on Facebook, the thumbs-up emoticon in a text message. If all a child needs to do to get that endorphin-y hit of approval is grab two seconds of our time, then this will become the norm, the model for proper engagement.

It is up to us to see that the children in our midst are presented with the mess of reality, with their failures as well as successes, with joy as much as disappointment. We owe them more than plastic gold medals for participation: We owe them the ability to confront complexity. It is our honesty—and not our distracted “wows”—that will provide our children with the skills needed to live in the real world, the one that lies beyond the bubble of constant praise.

On Praising Effectively
The Elementary School Journal, Vol. 81, No. 5 (May, 1981), pp. 268-278
The University of Chicago Press
Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Motivation: An Approach/Avoidance Reformulation
Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 13, No. 2 (2001), pp. 157-176
Nurturing Mastery Motivation: No Need for Rewards
YC Young Children, Vol. 63, No. 6 (November 2008), pp. 89, 93-97
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
PRAISE OR ENCOURAGEMENT? New Insights Into Praise: Implications for Early Childhood Teachers
Young Children, Vol. 43, No. 5 (JULY 1988), pp. 6-13
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)


Mosquitoes. In Glacier. In January


The drive to Polebridge with its acres of burnt trees

On January 24th at the Polebridge entrance to Glacier National Park, I killed a mosquito. At night as I fell asleep, I listened to the rain, and in the morning I woke to the drip-dripping sound of melting icicles hanging from our cabin roof. A sound I associate — from deeply ingrained childhood memories — with Spring. In Ontario roads would turn into small creeks as the snow melted from March to May. Fields became mud and everywhere was the sound of gushing and dripping. Water everywhere while crocuses and trilliums began to push their way up towards the light.


The trees looked like oscilloscopes

Sadly, this is no longer the case.


A post box in Polebridge

I was in Polebridge for the weekend to celebrate J’s birthday. We took E out of school on Friday to give ourselves more time together. Friends had loaned us snow shoes, we packed some food and off we went. Polebridge and its population of 24 did not let us down. The famous Mercantile Bakery was open for business, our cabin was empty but for a pile of freshly chopped logs and we made ourselves at home cooking on the wood stove and playing cards with occasional trips to our porch to look at the stars.


The library in Polebridge

It rained on our first night and flies were buzzing in the cabin. In January. In Northern Montana. J and I didn’t say anything to each other about it until we got back to Missoula as I think we both felt if we acknowledged the clear fact of just how screwed the climate is we would have been too depressed to enjoy a rare weekend together.


Ours was the cabin on the right. No one else was staying that weekend. The only noise was the dripping from our roof and the flies.

The following day there was just enough snow to stick on the snow shoes and head into Glacier, which is exactly what we did. The snow was too wet and sticky for sledding and it was so warm we stripped down to our t-shirts.


The famous Polebridge Mercantile (the darkened ‘snow’ on the ground is actually sheet ice)

That night. More rain. The next day the ground was like an ice rink. And it was warm. That was when I killed the mosquito. I could feel waves of depression flood through me. Bears have been spotted coming out of hibernation in Washington State and Nevada. In Juneau, Alaska this week, temperatures are above freezing — even at night. Meanwhile the East coast is being buried in snow. I feel it’s too late to regain anything resembling a balanced ecological system.


Inside the ‘Merc’

The drive from Missoula to Polebridge takes one past the sharp jagged teeth of the Mission Mountains, along Flathead Lake. North of Kalispell when you reach the northern tip of Flathead Lake you become sandwiched between the Lewis and Clark range of Mountains and the Cabinet Mountains. The landscape, being Montana, is vast and imposing and somewhat terrifying.


Inside the ‘Merc’ — an oasis of normality

But what made this terrain all the more remarkable was the burnt stumps of trees left over from two massive forest fires: one in 1988 and an even larger one in 2003. The later one devastated the West side of Glacier National Park and the damage is still there to see. The word that kept creeping into my mind was: blasted. It was a blasted, barren landscape of blackened trees like the ones you see in paintings and photographs of World War I battlefields. I thought of Paul Nash who after witnessing the Great War said: “I am no longer an artist, I am a messenger to those who want the war to go on for ever … and may it burn their lousy souls.”


Paul Nash’s ‘We Are Making a New World’

The devastation we saw on the way up to Glacier is the result of summers too hot and dry not to burn. The 2003 fire lasted for three months and burned 310,000 acres, including 133,000 acres in Glacier — more than 10 percent of the Park. No human lives were lost but old-growth forests and habitats for a variety of animals are lost forever.


The old ‘Keep Calm’ franchise gets everywhere…

With all this in mind, it was difficult to really enjoy the weekend with the carefreeness I wanted to. I recently reread the introduction to Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She wrote this book with the words of W.B. Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ in mind. ‘The widening gyre, the falcon which which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,’ were her ‘points of reference, the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking seemed to make any pattern.’ Much of the essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem deal with atomisation, with things falling apart. It had been a struggle she tells us to write the book because she ‘had been paralysed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed.’ She goes on to say that in order for her to work at all she would have to ‘come to terms with disorder.’ Maybe in these words lies an answer to the conundrum of how to live with the constant reminder of a dying planet, of an earth no longer being something one knows and understands. Perhaps in order to move forward and not be stuck in this train of thought one has to simply ‘come to terms with disorder’. Forget about the patterns we are programmed to find in nature.


Sunrise behind our cabin in Polebridge

But I have another question, which I have not seen addressed anywhere or read about. This is the question of how much of this knowledge of disorder and of things falling apart does one pass on to one’s child. I don’t want E to be fearful and anxious about her future and the future of the planet, yet she and her contemporaries will be the ones on the front line of extreme weather conditions as the planet heats up. How much should a seven-year-old know about this.


The sheer joy of being alive

Despite the gloom inside me, the power of the huge sky and the land and the mountains calling us on walks was too strong to ignore. The three of us played outside, rolling down banks of wet, sticky snow for hours at a time and then headed to the Mercantile Bakery where we ate as many huckleberry bear claws as we could. IN the mornings we watched the sun burn its way through the early morning mist to reveal jagged mountain tops the colour and shape of freshly dug quartz. In the moment all was extremely good. It’s tomorrow and the day after that worry me to death. Disorder. Come to terms with it.


The beauty of early morning in Polebridge. Is it just me or is the new growth forest growing way too close together?

Keep Missoula Weird (Not)

keep missoula weird

They’re selling bumper stickers. When do the coffee mugs and fridge magnets arrive? Or have they already, and I’ve just missed them.

When J was out here in Missoula in February checking out schools and places for us to live, it was dark, dank and cold. He called me one day and said, “Remind me why we chose Missoula?”

I replied, “Because you can’t buy KEEP MISSOULA WEIRD t-shirts, yet.” It was my shorthand for, “Because it isn’t Portland, Austin or Brooklyn”. Our home in East London is basically a clone of these hipster hotspots. There is ample artisanal bread, home-made cheese, men in checkered shirts and facial hair, and children taking ironic banjo lessons around our neighbourhood. Missoula, we thought would be so off the beaten track, that self-knowing kookiness would not prevail.

And we were sort of right.

Missoula does seem to have its share of eccentrics. You do see people buying pet pigs because they are allergic to cats and dogs, as one of my neighbours did recently.


Ruby, the pet pig who lives down the road

But this city, although proud of all that it does right (and it does an awful lot right), lacks that smugness you see in self-proclaimed ‘weird’ places.

For readers who have never been to Montana, it is important to know that Missoula is not Montana. Just like London is not England nor is New York the USA. Missoula is a liberal bubble in a very Republican state. If it needs to be a bit weird in order to stay sane, then that’s fine by me.

sky from deck

Missoula does those famous Big Skies really well               (seen from the deck off my bedroom)

So the Keep Missoula Weird bumper stickers may have arrived, but one thing Missoula is, which I was not expecting, is old-fashioned. In a good way. Not in a “You need to be making pies and darning socks all day, girl, between delivering your own babies”, but in a way that feels at odds with the life I lived in London. For instance: where’s the advertising? E doesn’t ever stand at a bus shelter with a woman’s larger-than-life naked thigh shimmering next to her head. Nor do we walk down the street having to look at American Apparel billboards flashing twelve-year olds – usually open-mouthed and legs akimbo – in their underwear. (American Apparel recently fired CEO Dov Charney – who had several sexual harassment claims made against him – who made out his ads were ‘pushing boundaries’. Yeah, right). The targeting of children to get them to want to look a certain way just doesn’t exist here in an overt way. I wonder if the consuming and the sexualising of girls is inherently bound up with living in a big city?


One of the banned – yet boundary pushing – ads seen in London                                Photo credit: American Apparel

In the month we have been living in our house in Missoula, not one adult has commented on E’s appearance. This is almost unheard of in London where well-meaning adults so often make unwanted comments to little girls about their hair, their clothes, their appearance in general. It is meant well but it does two things: makes girls sensitive and self-conscious about their appearance and makes them value it over their achievements. The emphasis here in Montana, from what I can see, is squarely on what girls can ‘do’ rather than on what they look like. At E’s school, girls play soccer. E is as yet to be convinced about this and still prefers her ballet. Maybe she still sees it as a boy’s game. She won’t say. Hopefully in time, this ungendered Montanan mindset will rub off on her.

power park walk

Missoula does Babbling Crystal-Clear Brooks really well

And bound up with this lack of bombarding children with reminders of how they should look comes an emphasis here on the outdoors. You would be crazy to play a computer game or watch TV when you could be swimming in the river or cycling through the hills. Montanans are now the thinnest people in the US. I am always struck when I look at photos of children just after World War II. They seem to have a sort of vigorous leanness to them. A leanness you just don’t see anymore in this world of transfats and television. This is exactly what I see when I drop E at school: a wonderfully gangly scrappy bunch of kids with retro physiques.

wolf cub

A cute wolf cub from E’s postcard collection

And then there is the politeness. This also feels very 40s. When E gave a card recently to a 10-year old for her birthday, it was shown around to everyone as if E had just given her the crown jewels. The card was a photo of a wolf cub and the levels of appreciation almost made me cry. How many times have us big-city folk seen the birthday cards chucked to the floor and the recipient of the Gameboy/Barbie/arts and crafts set be utterly disappointed that the toy wasn’t something else? I have seen this dozens of times in my own kitchen (embarrassed cough).


Photo by E of her last birthday cake in London. I don’t remember any tears, but then you block these things out, don’t you?

I cannot help make a link between the appreciation of a simple birthday card with the lack of Bratz dolls and plastic, disposable, sexed-up merchandise which you see at eye-level in every London newsagent’s. Is this similar to the video game debate whereby gamers deny the fact that shooting prostitutes all night on a computer screen makes them no less violent in real life. I don’t feel I have the answer at all. But what I am seeing is so vivid and so ‘in my face’ that I can’t deny the effect Montana is having on E. A lack of advertising and a whole load of physical activity is just a better landscape for children to navigate. You simply can’t deny it.


Our neighbour’s backyard as seen just before school. I know deer are not wanted in cities but I can’t help admire them. Missoula does Fawns, Does and Bucks really well

Perhaps my glasses are rose-tinted. Perhaps come February, I will be asking J, “So why on earth did we choose Missoula?” And who knows what he will say. Maybe he won’t have an answer.