Hold the Applause: How to Avoid Raising Praise Seekers and Tame the Fear of Failure

In an age of everyone gets a “participation trophy”, encouragement and praise can be a touchy subject, with a wide variety of opinions. The difference between “Great job! You’re so good at math!” and “It looks like you really worked hard on that, you must be so proud of yourself!” might not seem drastically different, but the subtle difference in celebrating a child’s skill versus celebrating their effort can have monumental effects on motivation, self-confidence, a child’s ability to navigate through challenges, and their overall enthusiasm for learning.

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I have recently become interested in listening to podcasts. In my current fervor I listen to anything that comes my way, but of course I have a tendency to relate everything to Montessori. An episode of the Tim Ferris show in particular caught my attention: #187 Josh Waitzkin: The Prodigy Returns. Josh Waitzkin is an eight-time National Chess Champion, the subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, as well as a martial arts champion with twenty-one National Championship titles and several World Championship titles. Most recently he is the president of the JW Foundation, “a nonprofit committed to maximizing each student’s unique potential through an enriched educational process.” (The Art of Learning) After identifying with so much of what he discusses in the podcast, I ordered his book The Art of Learning. In it he discusses how developmental psychologists have recently done research on how a student’s approach to learning can ultimately affect his ability to master a concept or material.

Entity vs. Incremental Theories of Intelligence

Waitzkin discusses a leading researcher in the field of developmental psychology, Dr. Carol Dweck, who explains the difference between entity and incremental theories of intelligence. If you speak to a child as if their intelligence is a fixed entity, saying things like “What a great reader you are!” they tend to think they are “good” at certain subjects and internalize that success or failure is based on innate, immoveable ability. If you congratulate children on their effort, (“look at how hard you worked sounding out those words!”) they learn that difficult lessons or materials can be mastered incrementally with hard work and persistence. Waitzkin elaborates that Dweck’s research has also shown children who associate hard work with success “tend to have a “mastery-oriented response” to challenging situation. In other words these children believe if they work hard at something and practice consistently, they will incrementally get better at it until they conquer the challenge. Children who see themselves as just plain “smart” or “dumb,” or “good” or “bad” at something, have a “learned helplessness orientation” (The Art of Learning, 30). Children who receive effort-based feedback from parents and teachers are more likely to be excited by challenging work, rather than children who have been praised on their ability, who tend be “dispirited by the inability to solve the hard problems…” (The Art of Learning, 31). When presented with difficulties or challenges, these children tend to shut down and have their self confidence destroyed.  

Positive Discipline and Encouragement vs. Praise

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Dr. Jane Nelson, a licensed Marriage and Family therapist and Child Counselor in San Diego, is the author of Positive Discipline - The Classic Guide to Helping Children Develop Self-Discipline, Responsibility, Cooperation, and Problem-Solving Skills. At Suzuki we use many of the strategies she suggests. Positive Discipline boasts of no rewards, no punishments, and no praise. Instead teachers have been taught to use careful, well thought-out encouragement, and skill building. For example when a little girl brings a painting over half-done, tilting her head up, clearly looking for approval and praise - of course my natural instinct is to tell her how beautiful her painting of air balloons is. Instead, I take a second and ask her to tell me about the picture, which colors she used, the paint, etc. to engage her in conversation. This way the focus is more about bonding and sharing rather than seeking approval and we avoid connecting it to her self esteem. I talk about how focused I can tell she is and encourage her to continue working. Dr. Jane Nelson warns of creating “approval junkies” that need constant validation from outside sources. When we encourage a child, rather than judge their work based on our ideals - we give them the power to assess their own effort and decide whether or not they are proud of what they’ve done.  

It is imperative that children learn to get comfortable being uncomfortable and approach learning as a long-term process that requires they leave the safety net of what comes easy to them. In order to feel safe enough to do this children need to learn from their parents and teachers, based on their careful effort-focused encouragement, that if they face a challenge and make a mistake, it’s an opportunity for growth. They have the tools and tenacity within them to acknowledge their mistake, continue learning, and perhaps seek an alternate route. Small changes in the way we speak to our children can have a huge impact on their sense of self and future success. What we say to our children matters - so choose your words carefully.