It’s Not All Mary Poppins

On Junk Praise and Self-Esteem

It is just about lunch time, and, as is our routine, the children have been directed to put their clutter toys and games away. This was a while back, and I had just started a three-year-old. This is unusual. Generally I get the children as babies, fresh off mummy’s maternity leave, but this little one’s mother had opted to stay home until this year, so here she is, fresh into daycare at the ripe old age of three.

After I’ve set the table, I look around at the room. The two-year-old has put his toys away, one of the three-year-olds has hers away, and the third? The newbie? She sits beside the block bin, and has put perhaps three blocks away. Hm.

“Why aren’t you putting the blocks away, like I asked?”
“You didn’t say ‘Good job!’!”
“And I won’t until you do a good job. Away you go! Tell me when you’re done.”

Her eyes widen. This was not the reaction she’d been expecting.

She’s obviously been fed a steady diet of “junk praise” by her loving parents. Of course she has. We’ve all been taught to do that: to build a child’s self-esteem, you feed them lots and lots of praise. You note their small accomplishments, you give positive feedback routinely.

And what do you get?

Praise addicts. Kids who can’t do anything without being stroked constantly. They’re like a car with a leaky gas-tank, constantly needing replenishing. You can’t get half as far as you should on the fuel you put in.

What you don’t get is healthy self-esteem. What you don’t get is kids who can see a task through to the end — not without a steady input of praise and admiration.

I’ve been reading “The Self Esteem Trap” by Polly Young-Eisendrath. It’s clear, well-written, thought-provoking, and, if you’re a parent of children under the age of 25 or so, probably provocative. It might even anger you, because it rebuts some of the noblest parenting ideals of the last three decades. It’s a terrific book.

I’d recommend it to all parents. Being the thought-provoking work it is, it’s spawned at least four posts in my mind. This is the first. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of being part of a conference call with Ms. Young-Eisendrath. One comment she made stuck with me: “Self-esteem can’t be injected from outside.”

This is not to say you never praise your child, of course, or that you don’t take genuine pleasure in them. But when you’ve created a child who, at the age of three, can’t put away 30 blocks without four or five injections of praise and encouragement, what you have is not self-esteem, but praise dependence.

A child who is raised on a steady diet of constant praise for non-accomplishments can certainly gain an inflated view of themselves. This is not healthy self-esteem, however, for what happens the first time they bump up against something that doesn’t come easily, against something that takes a little perseverance before they’ll see success?

Do they have the inner resources to say, “This isn’t easy, but I know I can do it, a bit at a time?” Or are they more likely to say, “This is stupid!” and drop it, or blame the teacher for being boring, or declare the task irrelevant? Or, when they’re older and faced with a task they can’t drop, are they more likely to say, “I’m a failure!”?

It’s true. Over-praise a child, wilt in awe at their every burp and hiccup, and you actually undermine the development of their self-esteem.

I’d planned on more, but the tots will be through the door any second, and I want to get this posted today. Chew on that idea for now, let me know what you think, and be sure we’ll be back for more!

September 24, 2008 Posted by | books, controversy, Developmental stuff, health and safety, individuality, parenting, socializing | , , , , | 11 Comments