Wednesday, July 04, 2007
One of my least favorite things to hear is “Good job!” Grownups usually say it breathlessly and in a sing-song manner, as if they’re overawed by each and every piece of artwork a child produces. They utter “Good job!” every time a child puts on a pair of trousers correctly (or not), makes a mud-pie, or builds a small-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower. There is this idea that we are supposed to react to everything our charges do and make sure that their self-esteem is bolstered, boosted, and buttered.
I don’t advocate tearing down children’s self-esteem. Far from it. I just think we’re going about dispersing accolades in such a way that genuine appreciation for our children’s work gets lost in all the treacle. When we pour on the excessive praise, we encourage our children to become performers for us, the adults, rather than letting them focusing on the actual work (i.e. play) they need to do.
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In first grade, my teacher would sometimes write “Prize” at the top of certain assignments. At the end of the week, students would take all of their “Prize” papers up to the teacher’s desk and select an object from the prize-jar. The prizes were trivial plastic objects, but they were rewards, so I wanted them.
One day, I spent a lot of time on a handwriting assignment with the specific goal of getting the “Prize.” A week later, I got back my assignment, and there was no “Prize” written at the top. I was furious. I took my own red crayon, wrote “Prize” on the handwriting assignment, and brought it up to retrieve a plastic spider ring from the reward jar. I was old enough to know that what I did was deceitful: after all, the teacher was the one dispensing the prizes, and it was up to her to decide who got them. On some level, though, I realized that her system was arbitrary, and didn’t have much to do with the actual quality of my work.
Early experiences shape how we think and relate later on. After writing “Prize” on my own paper, I didn’t start a life of embezzlement and fraud, but I gradually became more resistant to jumping through other people’s hoops. Even in graduate school, I did what I needed to do to get A’s, but much of the time I felt I wasn’t learning anything as much as I was giving the various professors what they wanted (i.e. memorizing portions of the text-book). The learning happened on my own. My system. My hoops.
In the comments section, Melangell links to a page of articles by Alfie Cohen. One of the articles is called "Five Reasons to Stop Saying 'Good Job!'" It's the seventh article down from the top. Also, take a look at this article in New York Magazine regarding research on the subject of over-praising kids.