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‘Sweetheart, That’s the Greatest Thing I’ve Ever Seen!’ An Argument Against Excessive Praise

Every day, Josie plops her Hello Kitty lunchbox on the counter and says, “Mama, look at my artwork!” Every day, I look at her portraits of herself and Max. Josie and Max with crowns. Josie and Max with wings. Josie and Max with flowers. Josie and Max with a rainbow. Uh-huh. “Fabulous!” I coo, barely paying attention, thinking about work, bills, whether we still have any of those little Israeli Kit Kat bars.

I’ve noticed that when I’m not really attuned to my kids, I simper “fabulous!” a lot. I also fall back on: “You’re so smart!” “Terrific job!” “You’re a wonderful artist/runner/hopper/puzzle-doer/yogurt-eater/Chapstick-applier/nose-picker!” But such compliments are both insincere and pointless. They’re not tailored to the specific kid or specific accomplishment.

Genuine praise is different. Case in point: One night, not long ago, I was putting Maxine to bed. Suddenly and spectacularly, she horked, spewing a Linda-Blair-like lava flow of vomit all over herself, her sheets, the floor, me. As I grimly stripped the screaming baby, pulled off my own sodden shirt and dumped the fetid linens in a pile on the bathroom floor, Josie peered into the bathroom and screamed, “Ewwww! Gross!” I shot her a look that could wither plants and said, through gritted teeth, “I. Am. Having. A. Hard. Time.” Josie studied me and the scene for a moment, then retreated. I focused on cleaning up, stuffing the puke-spattered clothes and sheets into the laundry bag, putting Max in fresh pajamas. When I came out of the bathroom, I found Josie already changed for bed, sitting quietly, giving herself her nightly nebulizer treatment without her customary cuddle and story. She said, “You take care of Max. I can do this myself.” I sat and rocked Max. In a few minutes, Josie turned off the nebulizer and crawled into bed — no request to be tucked in, no whining or delaying tactics. “I don’t need a story tonight,” she said. After Max was asleep, I sat on Josie’s bed. She was still awake, watching me. I said, “I am blown away by how cooperative you just were. I am so proud of you. You really helped me and helped Max.” She beamed. I kissed her. As I quietly got up and shut the door to her room, she turned over onto her side in bed. I heard her whisper, “I am cooperative.”

Josie seems inured to my drag-queen-like bursts of “fabulous!” but when I praised her for specific behavior that took a lot of work and unselfishness on her part, she was thrilled. She knew she’d done something truly praise-worthy.

Said child psychologist Dan Kindlon, author of “Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age” (Miramax Books, 2001), “Self-esteem comes from overcoming real obstacles, and we often don’t let our kids have real obstacles.” If a kid is told that everything she does is astonishing and magnificent, she’ll become an entitled little weenie. (Note: That is a clinical term.) “One of the hallmarks of emotional maturity is the ability not to be fazed by setbacks,” Kindlon said. “If things don’t come easily, you’ll want no part of them. Kids who rarely have had to cope with adversity have less opportunity to deal with the problems the world throws at them, and as a result, can seem emotionally immature or spoiled.”

Yikes. I don’t want my kids to be brats. But surely telling children they’re smart is good praise, right?

Mmm, not so much. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues found that kids who were praised for their intelligence wound up with a weaker work ethic than kids who were praised for effort. It seems that when kids are repeatedly told how smart they are, they wind up caring more about grades — about having the proof that they’re really smart — than about learning. They worry that if they try new things, they might fail, and that will mean they’re not really smart after all. But if you praise a child for effort, she’s more likely to continue to expend that effort. She’ll dig in, be undeterred by having to struggle, be less fearful of tackling new challenges.

So we’ve gotta steer between the Scylla of fostering self-important kids who expect praise just for breathing, and the Charybdis of nurturing stressed-out Ivy-obsessed wonks who win book deals at 18 but plagiarize their novels. Maybe that’s why child prodigies don’t often become adult stars: At some point, it’s not enough to be a great mimic. You have to stop parroting other artists, writers, musicians, scientists. You have to create new paradigms, new styles… which means making mistakes, irking the establishment, being misunderstood. You can’t expect praise or compliments. You have to have a core sense of self to keep going. The upshot: I want to nourish and encourage Josie’s talents, but it’s even more important that I encourage her for working at them.

Especially because I already can see that Josie’s the kind of kid who puts a lot of pressure on herself. (Let us not discuss the complete meltdown that ensued after Josie’s baby sitter gently informed her that she’d written the “J” in her name backward.) Right now, Josie seems to think that mistakes are terrible things. And constantly telling her how smart she is won’t help her change that perspective. Dweck studied the differences between kids who think intelligence is a fixed trait (something you have or you don’t) and kids who think intelligence is malleable (something you can develop, like a muscle). Kids who view intelligence as fixed are the ones who shy away from challenges, because challenge could mean failure.

Anyway, intelligence actually doesn’t seem to be the most important indicator of success in life. University of Pennsylvania researchers have found that character and perseverance matter more than pure brilliance. Psychologist Louis Terman, the guy who came up with the Stanford-Binet test (and invented the term “IQ”), was famous for his longitudinal study of smart kids. In 1921 he began following 1,528 boys who had IQs greater than 140. He died in 1959, but the study participants (affectionately known as “Termites”) are still being followed today. Terman and his colleagues found that persistence and confidence, not intelligence, were the most important factors in adult achievement.

And while Terman found that early parental encouragement was vital to adult accomplishment, that doesn’t mean we parents should reflexively chirp “Great job!” about everything. Alfie Kohn, author of “Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes” (Houghton Mifflin, 1993), warns abut kids becoming “praise junkies,” perpetually needing their next fix of compliments, or becoming utterly dependent on other people to evaluate what they’ve done.

And hey, maybe I shouldn’t worry so much about my kids’ self-esteem in the first place! (Heresy!) Marshall Duke, a professor of psychology at Emory University, found that self-esteem doesn’t actually make kids happier or more accomplished. (It does help them deal with stress and failure.) Instead of obsessing about our spawn’s healthy egos, Gen X parents like moi might instead encourage the traits our grandparents and great-grandparents’ generations did: morality, hard work, honesty, devotion to community. Instead of praising our kids to the skies, Duke suggests that we work on helping them identify and develop their specific interests.

Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s stop with the Berkeley-ish “Nice sharing!” and “I like the way you used your words!” Sure, that stuff’s helpful when kids are just learning the rules, but after they know what’s expected of them, we can stop cheerleading when they actually do it. A series of studies by psychology professor Joan Grusec and others at the University of Toronto found that kids who are praised frequently for their generosity actually end up being less generous than other kids. They saw being generous as something you do to earn praise, not something you are. (And let’s face it, in the adult world, no one praises you for refraining from smacking dumb co-workers upside the head. Unfortunately.)

So what’s a caring parent to do? Kohn recommends that instead of praising kids’ work, adults describe it without judging. I could, for instance, say, “Wow, these flowers in your picture are so big and exuberant!” or, “I see you put a ruffled hem on Max’s dress.” Instead of praising Josie for getting dressed without help in the morning, I could just say, “You got dressed by yourself!” Kohn also suggests that parents and teachers ask questions to help kids reflect on what they’ve done rather than simply applauding it: “Which part of the picture was the hardest to make? Why’d you choose the colors you did?” And when a kid does something kind or caring for another person, parents can point out how the behavior affects that person: “Look at Max’s face! She’s so thrilled that you let her use your crayons!”

Valerie Preston, the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten social worker at East Village Community School (Josie’s current school), said, “The best kind of praise goes to intention. If you tried to help someone or comfort a friend, it’s important to point out the impact the behavior has. Let’s not get all hung up on outcomes. So what if a kid tears the paper when he’s learning to use scissors? Learning is about process, not outcome.” She smiled. “All of life is a journey.”

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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