I was at a primary school assembly the other week when a teacher took to the stage to talk about the annual talent show. “Who’s great at singing?” she asked the children, who were sitting cross-legged in front of her. 97 percent of the children shot their hands up in the air and shouted, “I am, I am!” “Who’s great at dancing?” she asked? Same result. “Who’s really funny and great at telling jokes?” was her final question and she got the same result from the children, then urged them all to fill in an enrolment form for the competition. Their enthusiasm made me smile – and made me wonder how long that kind of self-belief lasts in children and what we can do to keep them feeling positive, yet realistic about their talents.
The issue of how much to praise children is a big one right now. Sometimes it feels like whatever you do is wrong. Praise them too much and they grow up with a sense of entitlement and go through life with a self-esteem that depends on other’s approval. If you don’t praise them enough they grow up with a diminished sense of self-worth.
The Parenting Place’s John Cowan researched this issue for a story he wrote for Parenting magazine last year. He found that of course praise is important for our children, but we do need to be aware of empty or excessive praise. Here’s what he wrote –
“There is a huge difference between ‘person’ praise and ‘process’ praise. A team lead by Elizabeth Gundersen at The University of Chicago has been doing a long term project. They filmed parents interacting with their children, in their own homes. They did it when the children were one, then two and again at three. Five years later, they tested the now eight-year-old children, measuring all sorts of behaviours. How those children were praised, when they were little, seemed to have a big effect. Some parents praised their kids with things like, “You’re a clever kid”, “You’re tall”, “You’re pretty” – this is called ‘person praise’. Compliments for who and what they were – their intelligence, skill, looks, height – things they have no control over. Other kids were praised for their effort and their actions – that’s called ‘process praise’ – and those kids at eight enjoyed challenging tasks, they could overcome setbacks and believed that hard work can improve intelligence and personality. Person praise locks kids into think thinking you are what you are – if they don’t do well, they think that’s just the way I am, but process praise gives kids the exciting belief that they can change and get better.