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Phony Praise Undermines Adult Authority
Sometime back when we used to have real winters, our neighborhood experienced a "weather event" that turned into every kid's dream: a snow day. I went over to the local sleighing-spot with our son, Sam. While we were standing in a crowd of parents and kids, I noticed something curious about the Currier & Ives scene all around us: as the kids of all ages came whizzing down to their parents, I kept hearing enthusiastic shouts of "Great job!" and "That was the best sleigh riding I've ever seen!" I was struck by the befuddled looks on kids' faces and their eye-rolling, as if they were thinking: "What are you talking about—"The greatest sleigh ride ever!' Get real! I'm just obeying the laws of gravity!"
When it isn't overused, praise can have a powerful, even life-changing, impact. But child-rearing, therapeutic, and educational practices designed to "enhance self-esteem" have so cheapened praise that we've destroyed its real value and undermined adult authority in the process. Degraded praise permeates the culture. Today, too often, kids don't just move on from one grade to another, they celebrate their yearly accomplishment through commencement exercises, once reserved for true graduation. They no longer write a report or a paper and move on: at the end of the project, they have a book-publishing party for the class. And let's not forget those certificates of participation, handed out each week just for showing up, like so many first-place blue ribbons at a county fair.
The inflation of false praise has inspired a hunger for realistic feedback. Think about the proliferation of sharp-edged, reality TV. In a world of cheapened praise, in which kids can't count on genuine appraisal from parents or the educational system, they hunger for brutally honest feedback. In programs from American Idol to The Apprentice, The Real World, What Not To Wear, America's Next Top Model, and Extreme Makeover, we see the incredible mass appeal of bluntly delivered honest criticism—from adults. The same can be said for the increasingly sophisticated nastiness of peer-group life. It isn't just "mean girls" and "bad boys" ragging on others' appearance, as in earlier decades: now, most kids engage in a stream of highly charged, unsparingly honest feedback about everything. Nothing escapes the eye of the second family, which makes adult overpraise seem surreal, and certainly not authoritative.
The issue of praise, then, isn't just whether it creates greater self-esteem or motivation, but whether it leads adults to be perceived as honest and trustworthy enough to be listened to. With this in mind, parents need to realize that the way in which they can get the most limit-setting leverage is to reserve praise for what a child finds most difficult: trying to curb negative behavior that flows naturally from hardwired basic sensibilities. I've found that praise acknowledging a child's genuine effort to go against constitutional tendencies is more powerful than most limit-setting scenarios.
Jared, an early adolescent slacker-in-the-making with AD/HD activity levels, had no patience for doing anything that wasn't immediately rewarding. He was about to quit an after-school club because it was "too boring" and the teacher didn't give him "enough attention." This was his last stab at out-of-class school involvement, because he'd dropped out of everything else. Instead of hectoring him about his inability to stick with anything, his parents began briefly acknowledging those days he didn't quit, when—against all his personal inclinations—he managed to hang in for one more club meeting, and then another, and then another. They acknowledged him without hyperbole and only for the real struggle he was making.
In the end, Jared stayed with it until the last meeting, and even made friends with the teacher. He experienced the unexpected rewards—such as incrementally fewer battles at home—that came from controlling his temperamental impatience. He began doing a bit more homework, keeping his room just slightly above toxic-waste-dump levels, and sitting still long enough for a 5- or 10-minute appearance at dinner. After several months of this, Jake told his mother that sticking with the club was the biggest accomplishment of his life—ever!
Ten-year-old Allison was a not-very-athletic, highly sensitive girl, unsuited to competitive situations. She'd talked her parents into allowing her to join a girl's basketball league because they thought this might help her become more assertive and less vulnerable to the social cruelty and jokes from classmates. Allison was, in fact, a crybaby who broke into tears the moment things didn't go her way. I encouraged Mom to make a casual acknowledgement when Allison managed to keep from bursting into tears.