Wednesday, September 9, 2009

To Praise or Not to Praise...

Deep in the psychology of parents and teachers is the urge to praise.  In fact, it really goes much deeper.  It is embedded in our culture.  The career .200 hitter closes his eyes and gets a hit at an important point in a baseball game.  His peers say, "Great hit, " "Way t' go," and such.   A golfer sinks an improbable putt.  His partners in the foursome all praise the shot.  The praise seems to deliver a good vibe to the giver and the receiver.  Most likely, the praise is a harmless expression of kinship and good manners.  But when it comes to educating our young, there is a strain folk wisdom that praise is somehow motivating, that we can change a young person's performance in life just by boosting self-esteem through rigorous praise.  I think not.

Self-esteem is, research tells us, an effect of an individual's positive and healthy self concept.  Research over the past half century continues to point to a direct and reciprocal relationship between performance and self concept.  This means that, like the chicken and the egg, it's probably not possible to determine which comes first, performance or self concept.  In fact, it's not necessary.  It is only in valuing performance and self concept that self esteem becomes an issue.  Individuals form a self concept by their actions, they begin to see themselves as "...the kind of person who..." does certain things.  Bit by bit, they develop a clearer picture, though probably mostly subconsciously, of what kind of person they are, what they like, and what they don't like.  Experience teaches them, and thus self concept encourages or discourages them from acting in any area.  It's easy to see how the building of self concept can either enlarge or diminish a person's desire to take on challenges.  If you're not the kind of person who jumps of bridges with large rubber bands attached to your legs, then you probably won't attempt a bungee jump.  If you're the kind of person who takes on physical and emotional challenges, then you can't wait to jump.

So can we turn a demure, cautious child into a bungee jumper with lavish amounts of praise?  The theory here is that if you tell a person often enough that they are good or successful, they will believe it and change their self image.  Research and the observations of thinkers for several thousand years disagree.  It is what we tell ourselves about our actions that determines what we think about ourselves.  Countless research studies have shown that students with strong positive feelings about their capacity to learn, do learn.  Their successes reinforce their beliefs and therefore strengthen their ability to move forward with confidence.  Equally, students whose self beliefs are those of inability to succeed or even cope with a learning environment meet with continual failure and reinforcement of their beliefs.  No amount of praise changes that.  Psychologists call that "cognitive dissonance:"  if a person believes a thing to be true, he will reject the contrary opinion of others and seek out evidence to affirm his understanding of reality.

So, what of praise?  Why is it so deep in our educational and parenting culture?  I think that praise has two functions.  Where an individual feels that an action is successful, praise supports that personal judgement and intensifies the feeling of success, possibly leading to future successes of a similar nature.  Praise is also an expression of empathy.  Therefore, if a person knows that the actor is pleased with the action, praise communicates that the individual's self assessment is correct.  In the process, the praise builds a stronger bond of affection between the parties.  If praise comes in this manner, empathetically, over a long period of time, the praiser develops a bit of trust, influence, or authority with the child.  The child knows that the praiser is in tune with the values of the child.  The child feels supported in his or her efforts to grow and succeed.

So is praise an appropriate tool of parents and educators?  Yes, but only when the praise supports a child's efforts to grow and achieve.  Feel-good praise, artificial positivity, is at best ineffective, and at worst manipulative.  It runs the risk of pushing a young person to crystal negative beliefs about the self.

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