In Praise of Honesty

Posted Sept. 09, 2009, at 6:15 p.m.

Young Billy or Susie steps to the plate for the fourth time in Saturday’s Little League game. Moments later, he or she is trudging back to the dugout after striking out for the fourth time. Mom and Dad say, “You did great!” and “We were so proud of you! You played so well!” Those who provide such praise are seen as enlightened parents who understand the value of building self-esteem in their child.

But recent research suggests otherwise. Up to the age of 7, children accept the “You were great!” praise at face value. Those older than 7 see through it.

In a recent interview with National Public Radio, Po Bronson spoke about his book, “NurtureShock.” “Children today hear so much praise that they have decoded its real meaning,” he said. “When kids fail and all we do is praise them, there’s a lot of duplicity in that, and kids begin to hear, ‘Nothing matters to my parents more than me doing great or me being smart,’ and failure becomes almost a taboo subject.”

Mr. Bronson told NPR he became aware of the problems of over praise while coaching his son’s kindergarten soccer team. “Until that point, I was telling the kids constantly, ‘You’re great, you’re doing well,’ even when they were dribbling the wrong way on the field.” A better approach, he said, would be to let children develop their own sense of success. Still, parents, educators and coaches must still support children in their failures, and make it clear that even when they strike out, they are still valued and loved.

Writing in New York Magazine, Mr. Bronson highlighted research conducted at Columbia University by Carol Dweck. She found that 85 percent of American parents believe it’s important to tell their kids they are smart. Yet a series of experiments revealed that fifth-graders who believed they are intelligent avoided trying new activities at which they might not excel. Given relatively easy puzzles to solve, half were told they were bright for succeeding; the others were praised for their effort. In the next round, most of the children who were praised for being smart chose easier puzzles. But 90 percent of those praised for their effort chose harder puzzles to solve.

The importance of self-esteem in child development should not be discarded. Clearly, pushing children toward impossible goals and berating them for their failures is not going to produce healthy adults. Mr. Bronson’s point is that hollow praise actually reduces self-esteem.

And beyond that, parents and educators should keep the relative success our children achieve in Little League games, musical recitals and even on their report cards in perspective. After all, the best hitters in the major leagues fail seven times in each 10 at-bats.

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