Praise for our children’s accomplishments can backfire. As soon as any activity becomes more about winning approval than about learning new skills, joy gives way to anxiety. Play becomes work.
By Lael Whitehead
Last week I took my two-year-old granddaughter, Kymera, to the local park on the island where she lives. When we arrived she ran straight to the ladder that leads to the top of the slide and scrambled up it. This is a brand new skill for her. On my visit two weeks before, I’d had to help her to the top. She was clearly delighted with this new ability and repeated the climb several times (after sliding down the slide all by herself!)
A mother was there with some older children and she and I got chatting. When Kymera swooped by on another round of ladder-climbing, the woman said, “Good girl! You are really good at climbing!”
Kymera paused, very briefly, looked at the woman with surprise, then carried on.
It was as if she was taken aback, for a moment, at being watched and evaluated. The climbing was something she was doing for its own delight. Having someone call her a “good” climber suddenly made the activity feel different: it became a performance.
This episode reminded me of an afternoon many years before when a neighbor had invited me and my girls to come to her house for a session of art-making. My neighbor had been to art school, but had not pursued a career as a painter. Her seven-year old daughter liked to paint and draw, and the mother was keen that her daughter “become an artist.” My three daughters, Lauren, Marley, and Julia, who at the time were nine, seven, and four, loved drawing and painting too. We thought an “art day” would be a lot of fun for every one.
The paper and paints were out on the table when we arrived, and the children dived in immediately. Julia, the youngest, gleefully set to work painting bright, messy collages of color. The other girls decided to paint horses. Lauren added a large barn and a yard full of chickens to the background of her picture. The two seven year olds painted their horses grazing in open fields.
At one point my neighbor’s daughter hurried anxiously over to where we were sitting with our coffee mugs. She held up her painting to her mother for inspection.
“Is it good, mom?” she asked.
“Let’s see. Yes, it’s a very good painting. Well done!” said her mother after a pause. Her daughter’s face brightened immediately.
I still recall the look on Marley’s face at that same moment. She glanced up, surprised, at our neighbor’s comment. She looked over her friend’s painting – the one that had earned such praise – then back at her own picture. I could just tell what she was thinking: “Is mine good?” Until then, painting a “good” picture hadn’t been the goal. The activity of painting had been a process, an exploration, something fun to do with her friends.
Our neighbor then got up and came over to inspect the other girls’ pictures.
“Hmm. Very nice,” she said, looking at Marley’s picture of two horses side by side atop a small hill. “You did a good job on this tree. Maybe add some shading to the hill here to give it depth? That would make it even better.”
Marley grew very quiet. She stared at her picture. Then she put the paintbrush down.
“Want to play hide and seek?” she asked the other girls. I could tell that Marley’s interest in painting was gone for that day.
It was as if she was taken aback, for a moment, at being watched and evaluated. The climbing was something she was doing for its own delight. Having someone call her a ‘good’ climber suddenly made the activity feel different: it became a performance.
Years later, Lauren, an unschooler, decided to try going to high school at the age of fifteen. She came home after the first week and summed up the school environment this way: “It’s all about being watched and timed.” Although she stuck it out for two more years, she found the constant surveillance oppressive. The relentless evaluations – doled out in the form of grades, prizes, honor roles, late slips, and detentions – were a shock to Lauren. She was appalled that the adults in that world thought kids could thrive under such conditions.
The sense of being “watched and timed” seems to take all the fun out of things. Even praise can stop an activity in its tracks. I am pretty sure that if I had started coaching Kymera on how to climb the playground ladder “better,” or faster, or more efficiently, and then applauded her for doing it “right,” she would have quit the game pretty quickly. For her, learning to climb the ladder was its own reward. She wasn’t there to please Gramma, just as Lauren wasn’t in school to please her teachers. As soon as any activity becomes more about winning approval than about learning new skills, joy gives way to anxiety. Play becomes work.
What is really going on when one person evaluates another? Why is praise as toxic as censure to relationships?
If you think about it, evaluation, or “judgment,” is a way of subtly assuming power over others. When you say to another person, “good girl,” or “you are a good painter,” or “you are smart,” or “gifted” or “talented,” your words imply that you are in a position to judge. You know better than they do who they are and what they need. You are entitled to reward or punish, praise or censure because you are a cut above them.
Being around people who seek to evaluate us feels risky. After all, they might disapprove. When children become aware of being “watched and timed,” they naturally grow tense and wary. Sometimes they will avoid an activity altogether if they feel judged, as seven-year-old Marley decided to do. Other times, particularly when quitting is not an option, children will become hooked on praise as a way of avoiding the potential shame of failure. Painting, for my neighbor’s daughter, had evidently ceased to be a source of delight in itself. Instead, being “good at art” had become a means of winning her mother’s approval. Instead of exploring her natural creativity and inventiveness, she anxiously tried to paint what she thought her mother would like. Needless to say, she didn’t grow up to be an artist. Why would she, when there was no real joy in it?
So, if praise is disempowering, what can we offer our children instead? How can we encourage without seeking to dominate or control?
I suggest we celebrate!
When my granddaughter and I are together we spend a lot of time sharing “high-fives.” We shout “yay!” or “You did it!” when one or the other of us makes it to the top of the slide, or rolls down the hill, or figures out how to fit the square block in the square hole. I don’t say, “good girl!” to her. And she never says “Good Gramma!” to me. Instead, we celebrate each other’s victories and triumphs with smiles and whoops and laughter.
We also mourn the disasters. When the house built of carefully-placed blocks collapses, we shout “Oh no!” When we slip on the playground ladder instead of climbing to the top on the first try, we say “Oops!” or “It’s a bit hard!” and try again. We don’t make a “teaching moment” out of what we are experiencing so that we do better next time. We just keep living and learning, trying things out, playing and experimenting.
We all love to share our experiences. We love to see another’s eyes light up when we tell our story, or when we show what our hands have made. When another is curious – genuinely interested in what we are doing – we feel honored. But we are not asking for approval. We are asking to be seen, to have our lives witnessed by a caring friend. We want someone to say, “Yay! You did it! High five!”
Our young children can show us a thing or two about celebrating life. They know how to pursue an activity for the sheer thrill of it. They don’t need our praise or our tips for improvement. They don’t want our gold stars or our applause. They just want our companionship and our shared delight. Let’s give it to them. Hip, hip, hooray!
Lael Whitehead is a musician and writer, and the mother of three grown unschooled daughters. She lives with her husband in the Gulf Islands of BC. Lael is the author of A Path of Their Own: Helping Children to Educate Themselves. This article was published in Life Learning Magazine.