Love the Child, Praise the Action

Professor Jean Twenge, Head of Psychology was lead author of a research team at San Diego University who examined forty years of examination results of 17 to 20 year olds. He compared the examination answers of students in 1975 to those in 2006. He found that a third more of the current students believe that they work harder than their parents did and will be better than them in important adult roles, both at home and at work. However, the study showed that the reality is that current students do twenty per cent less homework than their peers in 1975 and are generally less competent than their parents when they were young.

Professor Twenge puts the difference between the two groups of students down to parents heaping so much praise on their children that they are creating a ‘false confidence’, with little idea of the real world. The study concluded that ‘modern culture seems to be teaching young people to be over-confident.’ A psychologist, Dr. Roy Baumeister at Florida State University believes that people with big egos are ‘likely to create problems for those around them and end up depressed.’

It appears to me that the researchers are confused on two things, one, on the nature of praise and, two, on the difference between confidence and competence.

Confidence emerges when children are affirmed for their limitless intelligence, which is as much a part of their nature as is their uniqueness and individuality. Many parents and teachers confuse intelligence with knowledge and so when a child fails a knowledge test, they assume the child lacks intelligence. Such a confusion can result in children being labelled ‘slow’. ‘weak’, ‘dull’, ‘dumb’ and so on, and many children carry these received views of themselves into adulthood. The reality is that a lack of knowledge is what it is – a deficit, which with patience and encouragement, can be filled. However, if you label a child as ‘slow’ or ‘weak’ it will be far more difficult for the child to make-up the deficit. Indeed, the child may well ‘live down’ to your poor perception of his intelligence. Equally, when a child who achieves highly is told ‘how intelligent and bright you are’, this labelling of him arising from academic performance, puts great pressure on him to continue to measure up. The separation of intelligence and knowledge is essential to the development of confidence and competence in children. Confidence is realised through the affirmation of each child’s vast intellectual potential and that is there, irrespective of a child’s levels of knowledge. After all, there are still many individuals who do not have the educational and other opportunities to explore their vast potential, but that does not mean that that intellectual potential is not there.

Competence is developed through the provision of opportunities to learn knowledge and skills and by realistic use of praise and encouragement. What helps this latter process is the belief in a child’s potential and the realisation that each child is an individual and learns in his own unique way and is attracted to areas of knowledge that reinforce his difference from siblings and peers.

It is critical that parents and teachers do not praise children. When children are praised there is a double confusion – one, between knowledge and intelligence, and, even more crucially, between the child’s person and their behaviour. A child is not their behaviour; no matter what the behaviour children need to be loved unconditionally for their unique presence and person. Love is for person; praise is for behaviour. I agree with Professor Twenge that praise of children does create a false confidence and great insecurity. Praise needs to be specific to a behaviour. When a child is told ‘you’re great’ because you got 90% in your mathematics test or you got onto the winning school team, the child now feels he has to live up to this ‘greatness’ and can put considerable pressure on himself to impress his parents and teachers. Young people who have to prove themselves through academic, sports and other achievements are at great risk of depression and even suicide.

Children need the encouragement (to give heart to) of adults to maintain their learning efforts and they need for parents and teachers to be realistic in their feedback. Praise mirrors what has been achieved and what the next challenge is. When a child hands up a well-researched and articulately written essay, the praise could be as follows: ‘I see you have put a lot of effort into this essay, it is well written and shows good understanding of the subject. Keep up the good work’. Praise here is specific and it addresses the particular achievement. The affirmation of that student’s presence and person in the home or classroom is a separate issue. Equally, correction needs to be specific – ‘I see you’ve managed to complete correctly half of the spellings I gave you. Can I encourage you to apply yourself to the other half? Thank you for making the effort.’ In this feedback, the relationship with the child is not jeopardised and the child is likely to feel encouraged to increase his learning efforts.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of Self-Esteem, the Key to Your Child’s Future