Please don’t praise me for breathing

My cooperative, bright, curly headed five year old daughter one day looked me in the face when I had insisted that she do something she really didn’t want to do. She announced “I am the boss of me!”

I was taken aback for a moment, but only a moment. I calmly told her “Actually darling, that’s not quite true just yet” and sent her off to put the Lego away before she could watch her favorite TV program. The struggle had begun.

We had negotiated the storms of passage that had got us to this point, the odd tantrum, the rebellions and battles of will. I had worked hard on my ’pickup and put’ routine when polite requests no longer worked. But this was something new. My little girl was growing a powerful sense of self.

Every parent and every teacher faces this. How do we nurture a child’s sense of self-worth and efficacy without creating unacceptable beliefs of self-importance? How was I to make sure that my daughter’s growing self-esteem didn’t ever come at the cost of someone else’s? And just as importantly, how was I going to make sure that she valued the things about herself that truly merited value?

I looked up the meaning of ‘self-esteem’ in Webster’s dictionary and found the following: ‘confidence and satisfaction in oneself’.

So let’s visit a primary school classroom where the kids are getting ready to do some mathematics. They are packing away their previous materials and getting out mathematics books, pencils, rulers, some manipulatives and they are moving into new groups. As the teacher supervises we can hear her saying ‘great job, fantastic, way to go’ to children who have so far done nothing that required any effort. The room is awash with positive affirmations. She believes that she is building self-esteem but what she is in danger of doing is devaluing praise.

I need confidence when I am facing a difficulty, something that taxes my abilities and stretches me, something that just might prove to be beyond me. I can feel self-satisfaction when I know I have met that difficulty head on, used whatever resources I can muster to overcome it and either succeeded or certainly given my very best shot. I don’t need confidence when I walk across the room to pick up a pen and self-satisfaction is not really appropriate if I manage to sit on a chair without falling off.

We need to have high expectations about the behaviors we accept in a classroom, but praise needs to be reserved for those times when it has been earned. When praise is given for real effort, not just for existing, children are more likely to come to appreciate the efforts of others as well as themselves. In doing so they will come to value the contributions of others. Valuing others is the key to demonstrating empathy, to thinking interdependently and to looking around for new sources of information and data.

We need to be careful that we do not encourage a generation of children who think that whatever they say or do is worth a round of applause.

I remember hearing a lecturer in behavior management once say that we need to make sure we say something positive about every child each day. He went on to comment that sometimes the best you say to some kids is “Wow John. You really breathed well today.” But that’s a cop out. If John managed every day to get through without a single struggle, without facing a single difficulty, then maybe it will be hard to provide any genuine praise. But that is unlikely. John’s struggles may be different from any else’s and the effective teacher understands that and makes sure that John gets a pat on the back when he struggles and overcomes, when he pushes beyond the easy and the soft option. Then John understands what real confidence can mean. He can be legitimately satisfied with himself for something more than simply breathing.

Every child is valuable simply because they exist. Good parents reinforce this with their unconditional love of their children. From that foundation we do well to build a sense of worthy self-esteem in our children. When they understand that praise is given for effort they are more likely to hold in esteem the efforts of others. When praise washes over us continually it begins to feel like a warm bath and we stop even noticing it.


Filed under Behavior management, Thinking

5 responses to “Please don’t praise me for breathing

  1. Adding to this blog–when you provide a description of what it is you are seeing rather than just a “good job”, you are being far more precise about the behaviors you are finding commendable. And students know that you are praising that which can be repeated and transferred to new situations.

    • Thanks Bena. I agree wholeheartedly and the next blog will be about this and the difference between praising process and praising product. I also think there is an important difference between ‘praise’ and ‘acknowledgment’, but sometimes they are confused. I want to think more about this and would welcome your insights. I have made a few comments in reply to Bonnie’s comments below.

  2. Bonnie Griffith

    I think sometimes we use praise when what the students really need is to feel that they are being seen and heard. A teacher who says ” I see that you are struggling right now, but keep working at it”, lets the child know that we are in this learning experience together. I see you, I know you, I care about you; these are the messages they need as much as praise. Students also need reassurance and encouragement to deal with the anxiety that tough tasks can evoke. Anxiety can be overwhelming and lead to giving up and acting out, so words and gestures that provide support are every bit as important as praise.

    • I do agree Bonnie. But I see acknowledgment as different from praise. I acknowledge a child when I listen attentively to what he has to say or when I respond thoughtfully to her questions. But that is different from praise. Time and again I have seen praise actually shut down discussion, when acknowledgment would have kept it going. The teacher asks a question, a child responds and the teacher says “Great answer Mary. Anyone else?” and of course there are no more contributions because Mary has already answered. If the teacher had simply acknowledged the response, taken it seriously, then the discussion is much more likely to progress. Acknowledgment says ” I see you, I know you, I care about you”, If the child is struggling to achieve, then as Bena says in the previous comment, specific, descriptive praise about exactly what it is the student is doing well is powerful because it is transferable.I think the key is to praise process rather than product and to describe exactly what it is about the process that is praiseworthy so the kid knows what to repeat. I think I feel another blog post coming on!!!!

  3. The book Nurtureshock has some great research backing up your point. When kids are praised for being smart they are afraid to take risks because they don’t want reveal themselves not to be so smart. When praised for effort they are willing to take on new challenges because they know it is an opportunity to show their effort. Your Christian understanding of value completes the picture and you give wise words for parents and teachers. Thank you!

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