The Craze for Endless Praise

By Jane Lebak
Issue 127, November/December 2004

The author's son, Stephen (7), overwhelmed by overpraise.Yesterday, my son brought home a Tooth Award.

“What did your tooth do?” I said. Excellent chewing? I thought. Zero cavities?

“It fell out,” said my son. “Don’t you remember?”

The tooth had fallen out on Saturday. I’m not sure why my son needed a little certificate on Monday from his first-grade teacher—he had already been paid off by the Tooth Fairy. (Even now, he grows suspicious: What is this fairy doing with all these teeth? Extracting the stem cells?) I wondered, Does my son need motivation to lose more teeth?

As a child, my mother had two baby teeth extracted when the adult teeth grew in behind them. I have concluded that my son’s teacher wanted to prevent this tragedy.

It seems Mrs. P has gone overboard with these rewards. A couple of months into the school year, my son started bringing home certificates every couple of days. At first they seemed impressive: “Excellent work at math” or “Good job in paying attention.” Within three weeks, Mrs. P must have run out of the time it takes to meaningfully compliment 16 students every day. Now the awards came home saying “Excellent work in good job,” or even “Good job in good job.”

My daughter is two, and already it’s begun. Someone gave her a computerized game. It asks her to find a purple shape, and when she does, it tells her she’s smart—“You sure are smart!”— 50 times a day. She sure is smart—smart enough to know that she already knows her colors and shapes. When I play the game, it tells me that I, too, am smart. I find it vaguely insulting that a green frog in a red baseball cap needs to tell a 32-year-old mother that she’s smart enough to find the yellow circle. I have tried getting it wrong. Thankfully, it doesn’t say, “You sure are stupid!” which would more accurately reflect the adult world. Instead, the computer says, “Let’s try again.”

There are some better computerized games. For very small children, the best ones I’ve found in terms of “feedback” play a song if the child gets the right answer. They also play a song if you press the “play a song” button, so the child can be challenged to the extent that she feels comfortable. It goes without saying, of course, that the best game of this variety would be mom or dad, or even an older sibling, sitting with the child. “And which letter is that? You’re right, it’s a T!”

My son brings home a report card. My mother’s generation had report cards with grades: A, B, C, D, and F. I remember my own report cards, which said “Excellent,” “Very Good,” “Good,” “Satisfactory,” and “Needs Improvement.” Already the slide had begun. My son’s generation has four choices: “Commendable,” “Satisfactory,” “Improving,” and “Needs Improvement.” If you do no work, or learn nothing—even if you backslide—the worst you can do is to still “Need Improvement.” He is consistently reading three grades ahead of himself, but he is not said to be “Improving” at all. Is he declining? He’s “Commendable,” but does that leave no room for improvement?

This overabundance of praise has rendered praise worthless, like the overprinting of paper currency.

What is the motivation behind issuing all these awards? I’m sure the motives are good: boost children’s self-confidence; give them short-term goals; ensure no feelings are hurt. These are rewards not for “doing,” however, but for “being.” Anyone can get them. They are awards for the sake of issuing awards. Children are being repeatedly told that turning in any homework at all is “Excellent” work. My son once found a glaring error on his homework sheet—right underneath a “Great Work!” sticker. Showing up equals success.

There is no proof that high self-esteem will create happier children or more contented adults. In his groundbreaking book, The Optimistic Child, Martin E. P. Seligman writes that “the self-esteem movement in the schools, we suspected, [was] not alleviating the ongoing epidemic of depression and might even be creating it.” Natural processes don’t just get recognized (as a birthday party acknowledges a child getting older) but instead are lauded, as the Tooth Award shows.

Positive reinforcement and praise certainly have their place, but we have no control over teeth. If the award had come instead from his dentist, who acknowledged that my son always brushes his teeth after meals and flosses daily, perhaps that might have meant something to him. That would have rewarded his effort more than any esoteric notion of healthy teeth. My son knows, though, that he made no special effort to lose his front tooth, and that everyone will eventually lose those baby teeth. His reward has taught him something important: doing nothing is good enough. There is no need to make an effort if you will be rewarded the same regardless.

In the case of the green frog overawed by my daughter’s intelligence, the toy manufacturer is trying to make up for parental detachment. The toy is both symptom and cause of this detachment. Because some parents are “too busy” to play with their children and the child still needs someone to tell him if he’s gotten the answer right, the toy takes the place of the parent. “Very good! You found the letter T!” But the unintended result is that the parents then feel no guilt about leaving the child alone for even longer stretches. After all, the toy is “educational.” “Interacting” with the toy, the child doesn’t pester the parents to find out if he got it right. The child is being educated, and this is what the child is learning: This thing can tell you that you are wonderful. Things, ultimately, are what will make you happy.

All this empty praise and positive reinforcement of non-effort works against my goals as a parent. Riding the hot-air balloon of empty praise, my son now mutters with disappointment, “No money?” when Grandma sends a Thinking-of-You note. He gets moody if the teacher does not give an achievement card or a sticker. He pesters me dozens of times to tell him yet again that he wrote a particular word in his best handwriting.

I find it tougher to motivate him to work hard because the school rewards him the same for doing nothing. Although he can read at a fourth-grade level, he won’t, because he knows he doesn’t need to put in the effort. Multiplying reward atop reward forestalls the development of a work ethic. While “the joy of a job well done” may be esoteric to a first grader, the child still needs to experience that feeling. Instead, the child gets a piece of paper. But such rewards short-circuit his ability to take pride in his accomplishments.

If the school had its way, my son would be slowly robbed of the pleasures of meeting his own goals. As children become young adults, such praise dries up. At that vulnerable age, when teenagers reach for the crutch they’ve always relied on, teachers hand out passing or failing grades and no rewards. There will be no Tooth Award for cutting a 12-year molar or a wisdom tooth. That is when children fed a diet of unrelenting praise attempt to reward themselves: with material things, with drugs, with unhealthy friendships. Denied the natural high of achievement, they resort to artificial highs.

This is in contrast to the adult world. Adults face rewards daily: positive when something good happens, negative when something good does not happen. In value-neutral terms, such rewards are called “consequences.” In the reward-for- everything system, children are shielded from both good and bad consequences. But my “reward” for cooking dinner is that my family gets to eat. I am positively rewarded for washing clothes by having clean clothes. I am “punished” for not doing the wash by having only dirty clothes to wear. These are consequences, and it’s good to experience them. It baffles me that the school thinks it is not.

We grow tomatoes in our garden. If I water the seedlings, I am rewarded positively by the growth of healthy plants. If I don’t care about the plants but water them anyhow, I have the negative reward of the plants not dying. All summer, I will harvest a crop of delicious homegrown tomatoes, not “Good work in gardening” certificates.

I find it increasingly difficult to find group activities that do not incorporate this mentality of mindless praise. My son is enrolled in karate classes, and I see two kinds of praise woven into the system: the worthwhile and the worthless. The instructor regularly tells the children to give themselves a double thumbs-up and shout “I’m awesome!” At other times, though, I see the instructor praising my son for making progress at a difficult move, or complimenting him on how hard he worked to memorize the school creeds. There is also the belt structure. Children are allowed to progress to the next level only when they have learned enough at the prior level. Even so, some of the children grumble about the testing process. Because children are allowed to test only after they’re guaranteed to pass, they may perform badly during the test and still progress to the next belt level. This process demoralizes the ones who have worked hard during their tests.

Ultimately, only we can reward ourselves for a job well done. We get a good feeling from knowing we’ve worked our hardest. This feeling is completely outside the consequences of our actions—the emotion involves the action itself. Many describe the sensation of being fully absorbed in one’s work, or “flow,” as the feeling that makes life worth living. This flow happens only when we are working at our fullest. Without it, even the most successful person will feel like a fraud.

Children denied praise become praise-hungry adults. They lose heart and may feel no motivation to change a bad situation. At that point, praise does no good because they no longer believe it. The opposite is also true, however. Children who are never critiqued (not “criticized”) but are endlessly praised for doing nothing will come to crave praise as addicts crave drugs. Endless praise for doing nothing rapidly becomes no praise at all. If everyone is special, no one is special. This is why my son always wants me to look at only him, to tell him yet again that he’s done his best work writing the letter E. He hears me say he’s done a good job, but he no longer believes anyone.

Mrs. P has told the whole class their letters are wonderful, and he can see that not everyone’s are. The diet of pure praise creates a hunger of a different sort: competition. Rather than a healthy competition to better oneself, this competition becomes a matter of one-upmanship. If Billy gets two stickers on his homework, then I need two stickers on my homework. Because real excellence is never acknowledged as such—in other words, no one is permitted to excel because everyone is rewarded the same—children try continuously to find a way to be better than everyone else.

In most social situations, children will form their own hierarchies and will acknowledge that one is the fastest runner, another is the best artist, and a third knows everything there is to know about horses. In an environment of artificial praise, children lose this means of carving out their own identities. Success ought to matter—children know this. So they try endlessly to succeed and are cushioned from the blows of failure. What endless praise denies is that failure can be a good thing. Failure can motivate us to work harder the next time.

The religion of endless praise assumes that children are fragile, too easily knocked over by life’s ordinary blows. Stamina, however, comes only from sticking with a difficult problem. Denied small difficulties, what will these children do in the face of large ones? The other half of praise, the part that makes praise meaningful, is critique. Good critiques flow naturally from a close connection with your child and knowing what he needs to hear, how it needs to be said, and what the child finds valuable. An involved parent knows how hard his or her child has worked on a particular project and can praise it accordingly, giving the greatest praise for the greatest efforts, and giving simple acknowledgment of undemanding or thrown-together work.

I admire my son’s artwork: his bold colors, his systematic technique, his willingness to repeat until he renders a piece the way he wants it. Occasionally, I suggest areas in which he can grow. When we talk like that, he knows I see his work as it is, that I admire what he has achieved so far and how hard he worked to create it. For a moment, we share a vision of what he can accomplish. The praise/critique dyad is a building block for personal growth; untempered praise is a poor foundation for life or a love of learning. The emptiness it leaves inside is the antithesis of a successful career, a positive outlook, or a solid marriage. It leaves its victim searching for someone or something to make him feel both valued and valuable.

When praise is not forthcoming, someone accustomed to it will immediately leave that situation (or that assignment, or that marriage, or that career, or that campaign) in order to find something easier. I wonder: How many worthwhile pursuits in life are endlessly easy? My goal for my children is that they will be able to recognize their own achievements. I do not want my children held hostage to the approval of others.

If their life’s work or their values do not make them popular, I would hope they can stick with them anyhow. When they can persistently labor to accomplish a difficult goal, then I will know we have equipped them for fulfilled lives. Then they can make good choices and not need others’ admiration; they will treat themselves and their bodies with respect because they know they are valuable; they will work quietly and persistently for change because they know hard work pays off, even when they hear no applause.

Jane Lebak, a freelance writer, lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children.

Photo courtesy of the author.