Saturday, February 24, 2007

Self Esteem: Addicted to Praise?

Julie at Bravewriter has directed me to a fascinating news article entitled "How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise."

Dr. Roy Baumeister, once a leading proponent of self esteem, reviewed over 15,000 scholarly articles written between the years of 1970-2000 on the popular subject of self esteem. In his own words, his findings constituted "the biggest disappointment of my career." Only 200 of the studies met rigorous scientific standards. Apparently, the whole push to eliminate competition in schools, to reward everyone instead of only a few, the eliminating of red-pencil criticisms~~~ this whole scenario has been the result of flawed scientific research.

Should teachers and parents praise children? It depends on how it is done. It is appropriate to praise children judiciously for putting forth genuine effort. But praising a child for intelligence may actually be counterproductive. The wrong kind of praise can make a child reluctant to put forth repeated effort, because failure might jeopardize that "smart" label.

With our modern ability to view the brain via MRI scans, researchers have found that the brain chemically rewards the act of persevering in a task when that task is rewarded only intermittently. But if an effort is rewarded with praise every single time, the praise becomes almost addictive. A person will quit trying when the reward is withheld.

On the other hand, the brain can be trained to persevere when there is hope of reward somewhere on the horizon, but not necessarily as an immediate response.

How can these observations translate into useful action for parents and educators?

  • Make praise specific. Instead of saying, "You're an intelligent kid!" comment on the effort expended. For example: "I'm proud of the fact that you finished that book even though it was not your favorite."

  • Praise the process rather than the result. Not, "You're a great piano player!" but rather, "Your hours of practice really paid off. The dynamics in your music were very expressive."

  • Praise only when appropriate. Don't make it meaningless by over-using this potent reward.

  • Teach children strategies for dealing with failure. They can be taught that the brain is like a muscle, which can be strengthened by regular exercise. This empowers the child to progress, rather than to passively rely on an innate gift of intelligence.

Do take the time to read the article if you have time. I probably have not done it justice; it is rather lengthy but full of insight.

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