My blogroll is awash in posts that suggest children should be praised for their achievements rather than for their way of being. (Here is one of them, but I can easily find about 30 more). Simply put, instead of saying “you are so beautiful!” or “you are very intelligent!”, adults should tell children things like “You tried really hard!” and “You obviously put a lot of work in it!”
To me, the latter form of “praise” sounds like a passive-aggressive form of condescension. If you don’t see what I mean, just imagine yourself, as you are today, hearing both kinds of praise from the most significant people in your life. What would you prefer to hear from your romantic partner, “You look beautiful!” of “I can see how hard you work to look good”?
If you remember that children are just as human as you are and their only difference is that they are a lot more dependent than adults, you can imagine what the “praise for achievement” does to their feelings of self-worth and security in the world. As an adult, you can always just dump the loser who condescends to you with “Good job!” instead of praising you for what you are and who expects you to jump out of your skin to deserve her or his regard. A child has nowhere to go.
I have an opportunity to see the results of both systems of upbringing on a daily basis. N.* and I are products of these competing approaches. As I was growing up, the great-grandparents and grand-parents who raised me kept telling me how beautiful, intelligent, and phenomenal I was. They would sit around me with their mouths gaping open and eyes clouded with tears of delight (seriously, I’m not exaggerating) and repeat, “Oh, isn’t she beautiful? She is the most beautiful little girl in the world. And have you noticed how smart she is? Smart, pshaw! She is so much more than smart! The kid is a genius!”
As a result, I grew up with a feeling – a very basic, crucial, life-forming feeling – that the world is kind and welcoming towards me, that everything will turn out right, all problems can be solved, and everybody likes me**. And isn’t this the most important thing?
N., on the other hand, was always praised only for achievement. Good grades, good behavior, success at athletics. As a little boy, he once grew so desperate to hear a single word of unconditional approval and love that he asked his mother, “Mommy, am I good-looking?” The mother didn’t respond, so N. decided – in a way that cannot be shaken by any evidence to the contrary 30 years since – that he is ugly. I mean, if even your own mother can’t force herself to say you look good, then the only conclusion a child can draw is that he must be really disfigured.
As a result, he grew up with a feeling – a very basic, crucial, life-forming feeling – that the world is treacherous and dangerous, that nothing will ever turn out right, that misfortune can befall him at any turn, and that nobody likes him. Does this sound like a very happy worldview?
I think that people should ask themselves, “Do I want to raise a convenient, easy-to-manage child? Or a happy one?” If you prefer ease of management, then feel free to manipulate with achievement praise, making the kid think s/he has to keep buying love and regard. If your goal is the child’s happiness, then show the kid that s/he is loved just as s/he is. It is important not to sacrifice the long-term goal of bringing up a happy adult to the short-term goal of having the kid complete some insignificant third-grade project that will be forgotten in fifteen minutes.
* As usual, I never publish any stories about N. without his express permission.
** This happy world-view got somewhat messed up when I lived in New Haven but I have now almost completely recovered it.