Praising our children too much may be doing them more harm than good. A new book reveals some commonly held misconceptions.
Best behaviour for parents?
Raising children is a bit like throwing pots. By meticulously controlling the speed of the wheel and manipulating your fingertips, you work the clay into a vase or jug. Similarly, you take a child and, with careful doses of praise and discipline, make him or her into a well-balanced and happy young adult. But what are the right doses of praise and discipline and what form should they take? In their best-selling new book, Nurtureshock, the authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman suggest that what we think of as parenting "instincts" are in fact "intelligent, informed reactions" to the parenting books new parents avidly consume. Bronson and Merryman propose that new research shows that commonly accepted parenting ideas are often wrong or misguided.
The first chapter of the book, for example, deals with praise, and was expanded from a cover story the authors wrote for New York Magazine three years ago. Bronson and Merryman investigate the idea that most of society's ills stem from a lack of self-esteem in individuals, which leads parents to compensate by showering their children in praise no matter how well they have actually done. The authors consider research undertaken by Dr Carol Dweck and her team of researchers at Columbia University.
Dweck discovered that praising clever children can backfire and cause them to stop trying. She found that children who were praised for their intelligence tended not to stretch themselves or take risks for fear of failure. Conversely, children of whatever innate intelligence who were praised for their effort after an initial test improved their results. "Emphasising effort gives a child a variable that they can control," Dweck is quoted as saying. "Emphasising natural intelligence takes it out of the child's control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to failure." Dweck surmised that not all praise is good. It needs to be specific, sincere and proportionate.
The revelation that we need to think about how we praise children will not be news to many school teachers. The concept of praising for effort rather than a blanket "well done" is well established in many school environments. Abi Hill, a Foundation Stage teacher at the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi, explains that educators aim to equip children with problem-solving skills so that when they experience a difficulty or have a question, they can find solutions on their own.
"We aim for resilience," Hill says. "Very clever children may not have to try very hard, but then it can be extra hard for them when they meet a hurdle. We tell them it's OK to make mistakes as long as they learn from them." Teachers at Foundation Stage, who teach children between three and four years old, also try to foster an understanding of what teachers look for when they praise. "If the children do something like writing their name, we get them to do it twice and ask them: 'Which one do you think is the best one?'" Hill says. "This gives them ownership of their work and they know what they are aiming for. They can feel good about it. We are giving them responsibility and control over their work. Generally, children rise to the level of trust you give them."
This also helps to establish praise from within the children, rather than causing them to rely on outside sources such as merits and star charts to validate what they are doing. Kate Greenstock, a mother of three, teaches antenatal and parenting classes in Abu Dhabi. "If you say to a child 'good boy' or 'good girl', you are making a value judgement about them," she says. "It is more helpful to use describing behaviour as opposed to personal judgements. If a child brings a painting for you to admire, saying 'that's beautiful' or 'that's wonderful' can make them feel boxed in - they can't produce something like that again. But if you start to take the time and observe and describe what you see or feel as a result, the child might start to describe for herself how she painted it - start to praise herself and open up."
Greenstock believes that adults should be aiming for intrinsic praise, as it increases children's resilience and gives them something to fall back on when times are tough. "The child can say, 'I know I have done well, and I get satisfaction from that. It doesn't matter if I go through bad times. I have a bank of ways to get through it', rather than craving or seeking out reward from other people," she says.
When praise doesn't work to encourage good behaviour and dissuade bad, there is discipline. How many of us were told by well-meaning grandparents and their friends "spare the rod and spoil the child"? While few would want their children to be running around Lord of the Flies-style, regulating their own behaviour, many parents find that physically disciplining a child is a very emotive issue. In several countries around the world it is now illegal for parents to smack their child. In New Zealand last summer, adults voted overwhelmingly, but ultimately ineffectively, to overturn a ban on smacking.
Criticisms about physical discipline range from "How can you tell a child it is wrong to hit another children by hitting them yourself?" to "Hitting a child is an assault, just as hitting an adult is." Supporters, however, cite smacking as a necessary and effective parenting tool. "I think it is useful to have in your armoury," says Adrian Nichol, a work placement co-ordinator and father of two, who lives in Abu Dhabi. He believe that children benefit from having a set of clear rules and consequences for breaking those rules.
Nichol, who grew up in New Zealand, explains: "At boarding school, that's what you learnt: here's a set of rules with which you might agree or disagree. You have three options, you can follow the rules, you can break the rules and take the risk of corporal punishment or you can try and be clever and find a way around the rules." Nichol acknowledges the apparent contradiction of punishing violence with violence. "It's a logical argument, but I didn't have a problem with it. I didn't think it was unfair. The rules were clear. The punishment was hard. If you were caught, you were punished and then it was over."
Moreover, punishment didn't need to be inflicted to be effective. "The deterrent effect was very clear," Nichol says. So, too, for many parents who physically discipline their children. While they may use the threat of a smack to encourage good behaviour and deter bad, it doesn't need to be resorted to often. Research released this year by Marjorie Gunnoe, a professor of psychology at Calvin College in Michigan in the US, suggests that smacking appropriately when a child is young can have long-term beneficial results. Gunnoe found that children who were smacked by their parents before the age of six did better at school, were more optimistic about their lives, more likely to do voluntary work and keener to attend university. Children over the age of six who were physically chastised showed more negative measures, and teenagers who were smacked scored worse across all measures. Gunnoe, however, was keen to ensure that parents did not take her research as a green light for smacking, but rather as a red light against banning it altogether.
So, what are the alternatives for parents to discipline their children? Jo Frost of the BBC series Supernanny advocated the "naughty step", where children who misbehaved were encouraged to sit and think about what they had done. Greenstock suggests a similar "thinking or calming chair". Taking "time out" is another method that is popular among parents. It appears that indiscriminate, insincere praise can be every bit as unhelpful as harsh criticism. Some might argue that cruel words can be more psychologically damaging than a considered, forewarned smack. But the measurement of these will always be within the parent's discretion, as far as the law allows. Books such as Nurtureshock can be helpful in updating our assumptions, guiding us through the challenges of modern parenting.