Saturday, July 19, 2008

In Praise of Praise

Someone on a list that I am on linked to Alfie Kohn’s “Five Reasons to Stop Saying, “Good Job.

It is an interesting read. There is a book I read called “When Slow is Fast Enough” that describes very convincingly the way that praise and positive talk is used to manipulate and control small children.

I know that when Aidan was going to Early Intervention I’d always have to detox myself from the “praise jargon” afterwards. It did become almost a verbal tic, as Kohn says, to the point where you almost feel like you are unilaterally disarming if you don’t “match” the therapists’ verbal showers with your own. I think the ultimate example (made into conscious comedy by a special education teacher we were working with) was:

“Aidan’s wonderful!”
“And you’re wonderful!” (talking to me)
Then, recognizing the humor in this,
“In fact, we’re ALLLL wonderful!”

Yep, precisely. This was it in a nutshell!

So I do think the self-esteem movement has exaggerated the importance of praise in confidence levels. Self-esteem is based on recognized self-competence more than anything else.

However, I just can’t see that praise, defined “as an expression of approval and commendation” is absolutely useless in this process.

One possible value of praising children is so that they get used to it. Many adults have a lot of trouble accepting praise — they take it too seriously or dismiss it, usually because they were not praised very much.

Another possible value is that praise is a social reward. Sure, rewards can be thought of manipulatively. But they are ubiquitous. and do make a difference to people. Kohn talks about the value of a job well done to the person himself, and certainly this is desirable. But we are social creatures, and a job well done is usually well done in relationship to someone or something outside of ourselves. If it’s not in relation to the crowd immediately around us, it is in relation to some wider community or even a past or future community. I am saying it that way because I can think of painters and artists, writers and scientists, who persisted in an achievement not recognized by their immediate community, but inevitably they had some community standard they were producing towards, even if it was an ideal future one. By the mere fact of trying to publicize their work they were expressing optimism that if not now and there, in some future then and there, their work would be recognized.

Approval is inevitably, and legitimately, a relationship-strengthener. Think of how much more you want to be around someone who genuinely seems to admire you in an affectionate realistic way, than someone who either is constantly carping, or frowning with disapproval, or conversely praising you in an unrealistic inflated way.

Certainly we can take away from this by indiscriminate, lavish praise (”good sitting! good paying attention!”). At the same time, achievement does not take place in a vacuum. When you are in a close relationship with children, especially parenting, you are unavoidably going to be expressing some sort of disapproval at some times, if only “blocks are for building, not throwing”. On the other hand, if the child is using the blocks to build a genuinely creative work, isn’t it a bit artificial to keep silent and neutral? I do see how you wouldn’t want to shout in joy every time a child puts one block on top of another, but I honestly don’t see how it’s possible to completely keep all approval and admiration out of the picture, either.

Alfie Kohn goes on to make this point, too. Verbal approval isn’t the problem, he says, in itself — it is the way it is often used:

This point, you’ll notice, is very different from a criticism that some people offer to the effect that we give kids too much approval, or give it too easily. They recommend that we become more miserly with our praise and demand that kids “earn” it. But the real problem isn’t that children expect to be praised for everything they do these days. It’s that we’re tempted to take shortcuts, to manipulate kids with rewards instead of explaining and helping them to develop needed skills and good values.

So what’s the alternative? That depends on the situation, but whatever we decide to say instead has to be offered in the context of genuine affection and love for who kids are rather than for what they’ve done. When unconditional support is present, “Good job!” isn’t necessary; when it’s absent, “Good job!” won’t help.

He is saying, I understand, that praise should never be used as a tool. Basically, humans are not Pavlovian dogs, and “Good Boy!” and “here’s a bit of kibble for you” are demeaning to children. If you feel you are praising to:

–Get the kid to perform the way you want
—Measure up to his preschool teacher or therapist ;-)
—Pretend to him that something is good even though you don’t really really think so
—-Feed his craving (or yours)

Then you are probably being excessive. On the other hand, stacking two blocks CAN be a wonderful accomplishment for an infant or a motor-impaired child like mine, so I don’t think it’s necessary or desirable to hold off on the approval until your child has completed his neurosurgery degree (when it would be too late, silly and sort of beside the point anyway).

In writing this out I realize that I tend to praise (or affirm) my children more vocally BEFORE they are actually achieving something measurable, than later when they are getting more outside-the-family affirmation. I don’t know if this is the right way or not, actually, since I never really noticed it before. I tend not to praise overmuch except (1) when the child shows me something and seems to be asking for approval or (2) when I want them to know I am attentive to them not just to catch them out in error, but to see them acting positively.

If I see a child is engaged in a product (as opposed to behavior) I tend not to give much feedback unless they seem to want it. Small children usually want approval for the “process” or a discussion of the “content”– “LOOK Mom I painted an OCTOPUS!” or “Look, Mom, it’s a battle and this guy has a sword ….” etc. In one case, “Cool, you painted an octopus!” seems like the right response; in the other, “What does this guy have?” or “Who are the enemies?” seems more appropriate to what they are saying (though I always find it very tricky and challenging when I often have no clue what the picture is actually depicting).

Older children seem very vulnerable to feedback, so I treat it like poison. It tends to throw them off the inner requirements of what they are trying to do, whether the feedback is negative or positive. Their understanding of work and its relationship to them is still very much in flux and can be easily weighted in a disproportionate direction.

But again, I usually try to respond to the spirit of what they are asking or soliciting. If they are asking for approval, I try to say what I can honestly praise. If they are asking for how to make something better, I offer tentative suggestions while acknowledging that different people might have different strategies (sometimes I suggest a book or resource that might help them work it out themselves). If they just want to share the content with me, then obviously, again, questions and comments about the details, not evaluation, is what I offer. If they have been working concentratedly for a long time, I might say something in recognition of the devotion they are putting into the effort. But I might not, if it seems to turn too much attention to THEM rather than the work itself. Sometimes I might make life easier in some way for someone who is putting in intense effort on a creative task — I might do one of their chores, or bring them a snack or something hopefully to show them without words that I am in sympathy with their work.

In the teenage years they usually seem to really want to know how the “real world” would measure their efforts. That’s when outside forums can become valuable and when I will actually be more likely to give them feedback from a more objective perspective. IF they ask for that, and usually not unless they do. But at the same time, I see that a mother’s praise or criticism will be in one way less valuable and in another way more significant than an outsider’s. So I hesitate to be too detailed or austere, and instead I usually try to keep supporting them and helping them with their ongoing efforts, somewhat the way you support a close friend or spouse in their productive endeavours.

Sometimes, but not that often I try to “extend” the direction they are going in. This is something I am cautious about. I have to discern whether they are confident and want to stretch a bit more, or need to just rest in that place and consolidate. But I might make a suggestion, sometimes, to help them go further in the direction they seem to want to go in. Again, as Kohn says, you have to be careful that you’re not manipulating their energy in order to meet a “schooly” goal, say; or implying an insufficiency on the part of the work already done; or implying that they “have to” follow your suggestions in order to be good children. But in the right circumstances, it can seem respectful to the child’s endeavours to open up some new vista. I almost hate to mention it, because it seems so easy to do it wrongly, but it’s something I only recently learned so I wanted to put it down.

Boy have I rambled! The last few paragraphs are what’s evolved around here and not really a “thought out” standard. It’s nice to write it out, though, because I see that (as usual!) I have thought about it, but not in a sequential, ordered way — as usual, my vsl approach is to ponder associatively and non-verbally about the “big picture” and then find the bulk of it is already worked out.

Thinking about this also has made me think a bit more deeply about WHY I require certain subjects and WHY I’ve hesitated to meddle overmuch in areas like a child’s writing, where personal voice and personal toolbox seem so important to me. Somehow I’ve managed to raise 3 children who as adults write very well, but 95% of what I’VE done has been a careful, sometimes painful holding-back from too-early handing-overof tools and evaluation and shaping of method. I didn’t realize till recently that this conscious, energetic passiveness has actually probably helped them to develop as writers.

I probably invest so much energy into the restraint part of forming good writers because I feel so strongly about writing as a personal gift and expression. I probably don’t feel so strongly about this in areas like math because I myself learned math more mechanically than I did writing. But I suppose if I had that intuition about writing only applied across the board to all learning I would be a 95% unschooler instead of what I am now — somewhere between 60% and 80% unschooler depending on season and other factors.

REALLY rambling now! : D