Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Praise is a Double-Edged Sword - The Role of Praise and Self Esteem

Writing all the numbers from 1 to 100 all by herself!
We live in a time where parents are encouraged to praise, praise, and praise their children, and to give all kinds of rewards for activities. This is often seen as a way to build children’s self-esteem. Praise, however, can be a double-edged sword. It can have the unintended effect of discouragement and negatively affect self-esteem. How can this be so?

When we praise a child using broad generalizations about them, what we are really doing is judging them. For example, if one uses phrases that start with "you are _________" such as "you are so smart", "you are so artistic", "you are so pretty" then it is human nature to think of exceptions to this. The child may think, "Well I made a mistake yesterday" or "I don't like the picture I just drew" or "I have a wart on my finger", thus experiencing an inner conflict.  The child is often left feeling like he/she cannot live up to that label, and that the person complimenting them is either being insincere or does not really know their true inner nature. This has the effect of decreasing self-esteem. 

However, when we praise a specific action, effort, or the outcome of the effort, then the child (without hearing the label) will often on his/her own come to the conclusion that he/she is "smart" or "artistic" or "pretty" because he/she has the details that back up that statement. For example, one might say "I see how long you worked on that puzzle and you kept at it even though you got frustrated for a while. You completed it all on you own. I'm proud of your work", or "I really like how you chose the warm colors of yellow, orange and red to express how happy you feel in that painting", or "I noticed the pretty combination of clothes that you chose to wear today and how nicely your hair is braided." These types of praise give the child a reservoir upon which to draw from to judge themselves. Their value comes from within and not from other people. This reinforces that one’s self judgment and self-esteem come from within and not from external sources.
If we work each day to give our children the tools to evaluate themselves positively then they will have a lifelong skill that will carry them into adulthood. This will help strengthen children to weather the natural ups and downs of life and the challenges that we all face.

Marla Nargundkar, AMI Montessori Guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta.