Are we praising our children too much?

This is an era of showcase parenting.

My child writes poetry at eight.”

Mine reads biographies at ten.”

Mine learnt how to play the piano at six.”

When Re was a baby, I did the rounds of all the parks in my neighbourhood. I always met fellow moms with their babies. They always compared notes on whether their child was turning, sitting, teething, crawling, standing, walking, or talking as well as the others. It always made me tired.

So is he walking?’ one would ask me about Re.

Not really, but with support, yes…’ I would say.

Is he talking?’ they would ask.

Not yet, but he is just fifteen months,’ I would say, suddenly wanting to be some place else.

Mine started talking at eleven months!’ one would declare.

And then I would find another park. Soon, I ran out of parks.

Now I am older and wiser, and also a teacher, so I grin and bear it. I meet parents of budding pianists, chess-players, architects, writers and poets in the making, but what strikes me is that parents these days are somewhat too generous with praise. The child doodles a bit and he is an artist. The child strums a few chords and she is a musician. The child writes a tree poem and she is a naturalist. The child rearranges things and he is a designer. And most adulatory things about the child are said in front of the child. Call me old-fashioned, but I find this weird.

When I was a little girl, my only claim to fame was that I did exams well and wrote, kinda well and was somewhat good at dance. I waited and waited for my parents to acknowledge one or more of these traits whenever people came over. They never did. I am grateful to them now, because that somehow kept me going. It made me feel that I was still on a journey and there was a long way to go.

I think children these days get points just for showing up. Adults are constantly praising kids for things that a generation ago would not have merited notice, such as showing up on time or remembering to do homework. I don’t know about you, but I find it patronizing. And the real world doesn’t praise you for brushing your teeth in the morning.

Carol Dweck in her book Mindsets: the new psychology of success talks about the merit in praising effort, not outcome and believes it’s the only way to produce resilient kids. She says, “I think the way we praise, the way we talk to kids, all of these messages are conveying a value system. So when we say to someone ‘Oh, you’re so smart’, it says that’s what we value. When we say to a kid ‘Oh, you did that so quickly, you’re really good at it’, we’re telling them doing something quickly and easily means you’re good at it, and if you have to work hard you aren’t good at it. Or if we say ‘Wow, I’m really impressed’, and they haven’t really worked hard, then we’re saying that’s what impresses me – that if you make a mistake, if you struggle, it doesn’t impress me.

She recommends that parents around the dinner table and teachers in the classroom should ask, ‘Who had a fabulous struggle today?’

The problem with praise, or at least praise aimed at performance, is that when children are praised all the time, they also feel judged all the time. Children also tend to know when they have really accomplished something and when they have not. They soon catch on if everything they do is “fantastic” or “brilliant”. They can become apathetic to praise, since they hear it all the time.

Praise is also like crack for kids- they can start to require higher and higher doses of it and may feel that there is something wrong with them when they aren’t being showered with kudos. If you shower praise all the time, you will soon run out of superlatives and be unable to tell real achievement from the usual norm.

What I also find is that a whole generation of parents are overcompensating for the lack of time with their kids with extreme praise. Yet time and real engagement are always more meaningful. As Zadie Smith would say, “Time is how you spend your love.” “You’re terrific” is not.

Yes, it’s easy to swing into the superlative every time your child makes you a birthday card or says something that smacks of brilliance. We have all been there. So what do you then tell a child when they do something impressive? Just say what you saw. “Oh! You’ve drawn a house with a rainbow window,” I told Re the other day. I am learning too.

Because every blob of clay is not a Damian Ortega, neither is every splotch of colour a Kandinsky or every recital Oscar worthy. If we are telling our kids that, we are just creating a generation of praise junkies.

This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 1st September, 2014