The paralysing effect of praise

I got a lot of good feedback for my previous post. It was the most shared piece, I have ever written. I was very pleasantly surprised how many people could relate to this. As I often like to repeat – you will always find, what you are looking for. If you look for misery, you will surely find it. And if you look for happiness, you will find that too. The fact, that so many people enjoyed my piece means for me, that there are plenty of people out there, looking for happiness, finding it and rejoicing about it. And that makes me very grateful.

Good feedback in my case seems to be a double-edged sword. While I am incredibly grateful and happy to receive it, it also brings out an old pattern, learned through 12 years of school. Praise paralyses me. I can not write anything after that in case it turns out to be slightly less insightful, delightful and popular. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of a hugely popular book “Eat, love, pray” once gave an interesting TED talk, where she talked about how difficult it is to write anything, after your creation has grown such amazing wings, as her book did.

Several scientists and authors have published in recent years articles about this phenomenon, that I instantly related to, when I first heard about it. Praising children about their talent, instead of work, teaches them to be afraid of failure, makes them lose confidence. How does it work?

Often a child will react to praise by quitting — why make a new drawing if you have already made ‘the best’? Or a child may simply repeat the same work — why draw something new, or in a new way, if the old way always gets applause? (Source)
Once that child hears often, that he/she is “smart” and “talented”, he/she starts to expect that always. It becomes part of his identity and any failure would be a direct assault to that identity. “What if I am not as talented as everybody seems to think? What am I then? Stupid?” There is no middle ground for a child like that. So as soon as they even smell failure or are afraid to perform less than perfect, they quit even before beginning.

From Psychology Today I found the following:
The Columbia University researchers Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck have found that children who were praised for their intelligence, as compared to their effort, became overly focused on results. Following a failure, these same children persisted less, showed less enjoyment, attributed their failure to a lack of ability (which they believed they could not change), and performed poorly in future achievement efforts. Dweck says: “Praising children for intelligence makes them fear difficulty because they begin to equate failure with stupidity.”

I was one of those kids. Always praised for being smart, I learned around grade 6 that as soon as I am face-to face with the possibility of failing, I quit before trying. And work? “That is for slow and stupid.. I’m too cool for that”.

psychoanalyst and University College London professor Stephen Grosz writes in his book “The Examined Life”:
“Admiring our children may temporarily lift our self-esteem by signaling to those around us what fantastic parents we are and what terrific kids we have — but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self. In trying so hard to be different from our parents, we’re actually doing much the same thing — doling out empty praise the way an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism. If we do it to avoid thinking about our child and her world, and about what our child feels, then praise, just like criticism, is ultimately expressing our indifference.”

So what is a better solution as a parent? How to keep on evolving and make new mistakes instead of repeating the old ones?
The scientists say that the solution is presence. Be present, notice children’s work, give feedback, not just praise. You can point out what appeals personally to you, but be honest. And let them know that you are happy to see them try again, learn and work. Grosz quotes in his book a teacher called Charlotte Stiglitz:
“I don’t praise a small child for doing what they ought to be able to do,’ she told me. ‘I praise them when they do something really difficult — like sharing a toy or showing patience. I also think it is important to say “thank you”. When I’m slow in getting a snack for a child, or slow to help them and they have been patient, I thank them. But I wouldn’t praise a child who is playing or reading”
Grosz also says that presence, helps build the child’s confidence by way of indicating he is worthy of the observer’s thoughts and attention — its absence, on the other hand, divorces in the child the journey from the destination by instilling a sense that the activity itself is worthless unless it’s a means to obtaining praise. Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness — the feeling that someone is trying to think about us — something we want more than praise?

Children develop a sense of competence by seeing the consequences of their actions, not by being told about the consequences of their actions. Children who are praised for their effort show more interest in learning, demonstrate greater persistence and more enjoyment, attribute their failure to lack of effort (which they believe they can change), and perform well in subsequent achievement activities.
More about that in the PT article.

It takes a lot of work to first recognize and then break that pattern… And one of the things that I plan to do for breaking it, is to start writing every week. Whether I feel that I have something to say or not. I’ll just do it. Work. Persistence. Brr, itching to cancel the whole blogging thing already.