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Feinting with Damn Praise

Feinting with Damn Praise
By David H. Albert

Unabashedly, I love fan mail. (Hint, hint.) I really do. It means at least somebody is reading my stuff. As a former book publisher, I know that’s something one can’t necessarily count on. (We used to figure that for every six books we sold, only one got read, though it might get read again and again, especially if it was in a library.) The fact that someone would actually like it is a bonus, and then that readers would go out of their way to tell me so is a real treat.

Of course, I much prefer the long letters, where people tell me what they like in detail, and how it relates to their own experience. I can only write out of my experience, so when I hear about that of my readers, it expands my horizons.

I like good criticism, too. I’m a big kid, and I can handle it. I’ve got an ego as big as a large hippo, and with as thick a skin. Sometimes I think it would be better if it was a little thinner, or at least that I was a better

listener. Intellectually, I figure I’m wrong about as often as the next person, or maybe perhaps even a little more so. But hippo-headedness can be debilitating, and a short vacation stay in a re-education camp might do me a little good.

So while an occasional “Wow!” will allow me to puff up my chest a little, a thoughtful mixture of praise and constructive criticism, provided in a thoughtful manner, by someone whom I have learned to respect and trust, is what I like best. And if it happens often enough, it will even motivate me to become a better writer. Maybe even a better person (as yet to be determined).

And the ones I abhor most? I sometimes get emails and letters filled with exorbitant praise from someone who is actually trying to manipulate me into doing something I wouldn’t consider doing otherwise. I hate that. And it happens far too often.

So what is all this fuss about praise? Praise was (and still is) often thought of as a motivator. And for good reason. It generally works for adults, or at least adults in the workplace. Grownups like being praised. Combined with little rewards (they don’t have to be very large) and perhaps a bit of chocolate, adults will “generally speaking” be motivated to work harder, be more productive, and, if the studies are to be believed, feel happier about themselves. Apparently works with drug court participants, too, in keeping them on track (a little tidbit from my former professional field).

I lived through the whole self-esteem movement for kids in school. It has strange origins in the work of the disciples of Ayn Rand (see, for example, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem by one of her lovers Nathaniel Branden), and was then adopted by political liberals in California where they created the state’s Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. The Task Force’s 1989 report helped persuade schools around the nation to nurture their students’ self-esteem as a way of eliminating social problems and academic failure. As my daughter Meera explains (from her direct experience), this is where you not only hear “good going” and get a high-five when you fall off the gymnastics high bar flat on your face; you then also get a medal and a trophy for finishing twenty-seventh.

My friend Alfie Kohn took off after the rewards and praise thing in engaging although often breathless prose (Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes). I actually like the book (and his work) a lot, and it was (and is!) a welcome corrective. He’s on the side of the angels, but the reality is that Kohn often chose to ignore (or mischaracterize) empirical evidence in favor of the theoretical.

Much of the experimental evidence is much more subtle than he suggests. Many of the studies indicate students who are liberally praised become risk-averse, and will choose easier rather than more difficult tasks at which they feel certain they will succeed. They will also become more “competitive.” They may be more likely to take “short-cuts.” They might seem less “curious.” But they don’t necessarily become less “successful” as a result. (In short, perhaps they are in training to become bankers?) (To be totally fair to Alfie, I think both Punished by Rewards and his other works indicate that he would be more upset if he came to believe that gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes actually worked, as he is even more troubled about the ends to which they are applied, and seeing people successfully manipulated towards those ends, than by the means themselves.)

One of my favorite authors Carol Dweck (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success) found that what you praise children for in school may be as important as whether you praise them. Praising for effort, experimentally at least, seems to result in better future performance. Children who are praised for effort when they do poorly on tests perform better the next time around; children praised for intelligence do markedly worse.

Frankly, all the research (including that of Dweck, and that summarized by Kohn) can make your head hurt, and it should, because it universally has one thing in common: school. The children tested are in school. Those doling out the praise are either teachers or researchers who look like teachers. Studies in the home with parental behaviors as the variable (the type that magazines like Parenting seem to love) are of children who spend six to eight hours a day in the box, and then are inundated with schoolwork to be done at home. (I won’t deign to even grace it with the appellation homework, which really should be something else entirely.) The parents went to school and are the ones who voluntarily send their kids off to the dayjail, and then, in many cases, go off to their own. The performance measures studied are school performance measures. (No one seems interested in courage or empathy or intuition, and rarely in creativity, and maybe that’s a good thing as long as it helps keep the schools’ grubby hands off of them.) Workers spent thirteen years or more under minute-by-minute surveillance. (So did prison inmates who, according to at least one study, excel in what Daniel Goleman calls “emotional intelligence.” Emotionally intelligent people supposedly make better life choices. Hmm. I do not know how well they respond to praise from prison guards.) “Watch what I can make Pavlov do,” thinks the dog. “Every time I drool, he’ll immediately smile and write in his little book.”

Earlier, I indicated that praise (with or without chocolate) actually works as a motivator among adults in the workplace, at least over the short-term. And it does (the evidence is pretty overwhelming). But there is one glaring exception: blue-collar unionized workers in factory or factory-like environments. They are more likely to feel they are being manipulated, and, having recognized solidarity with each other rather than acquiescing quietly to rigged competitions that are not in their interests, they just don’t trust the cheerleaders or their motives. (They may also know from experience that praise is often followed by mass layoffs, or unnegotiated demands for higher productivity.) Perhaps there are also children who can see things with clearer eyes than we do.

The value of praise (or lack thereof) comes from context, from the respect that has been earned by the people doing the praising, by the trust one places in their motives, by the specificity of the praise being offered and that it is not formulaic or formulaically or over-liberally proffered, and by the receptivity of those on the receiving end. Anyone who thinks that praise by definition doesn’t work hasn’t spent enough time around a good gymnastics or fencing coach.

For praise to work, there can be no hypocrisy in the exchange. No child (or adult) wants to hear, “I expect you all to be independent, innovative, critical thinkers who will do exactly as I say.” And then to be praised almost entirely for the latter. Faced with such an affront to our self-respect, the healthy human response would be to seek out solidarity and actively rebel. Some do! Sadly, too many of us – and the kids – with the inner voice of fatuous praise now firmly implanted, simply learn to tune out. And when we are praised for the wrong thing, we may forget what is really important – to us.

Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition (for our nonguns, of course). We’ve got a whole lot of unlearning to do, and perhaps we can have an inner turkeyshoot.

* * * * *

P.S. Now that I’ve got your attention, I want to add something about the gold stars thing (one of Alfie’s favorite bêtes noires – that’s fancy talk for anathemata, which is fancier talk for the banes of our existence.) When I was six-and-a-half and growing up in New York City, and having just experienced bouts with chicken pox, mumps, and measles, all in the space of four months (maybe rubella, too – this has become the stuff of family mythology), apparently I was dehydrated, and absolutely refused to eat. (My maladies all had the positive benefit, by the way, of keeping me out of school.) I won’t chalk up my refusal to my mother’s now legendary status as a lousy cook. (In case she’s reading this, I don’t want to damage her self-esteem, so let me rephrase: I applaud her for putting in all that effort in attempting to feed us all [even if that included the infamous lungen stew – beef lungs], now banned for human consumption by the Food and Drug Administration...see, there really is a God, and He takes pity upon the abject plight of little children. This being written during the summer Olympics, I thus hereby award her a shiny twenty-seventh place medal in double boiler. And to make sure I get this right, I shouldn’t say she is a lousy cook; it’s just that her cooking is abominable.) I wouldn’t have known any better about the food at the time.

No, I expect that the combination of being six-and-a-half, having lost control of my body, and having my mother chasing me around the house and neighborhood with a fork was enough to make me realize that regulating my own food and water intake was one of the few places I could actually exert some power and realize even the barest modicum of autonomy. Fuming, screaming, and crying not having succeeded, my mother (who was yet to become a first-grade teacher) resorted to gold stars for eating.

Now I didn’t care in the least about the gold stars. But fifty stars accumulated and I “earned” a toy gun. And so I ate. To this day, I remember heading out to the toy store on Union Turnpike, my mother having decided that she wouldn’t buy plastic, and so I got a terrific one, with a shiny wooden stock and metal barrel. All of a piece with my Davey Crockett cap (poor raccoon, although maybe it was ersatz). Fantasy gunplay for six- and seven-year-olds makes very healthy good sense. It is one place they (we!) can express autonomy and some power over a world of which we rarely have any other control. Except in doing the Gandhi no-food thing.

Food wars continued for years thereafter. Gold stars were lost to the repertory. And every time she praised a few forkfuls, I felt that I had engaged in an act of self-betrayal. I learned to hide and dispose of food I wouldn’t eat (occasionally got caught, too), and to beg to be allowed to do my “homework.” I was now a legendary poor eater. (Two legends in one family!) But I better rephrase that: I wasn’t a poor eater; I just consistently didn’t eat. Except at grandma’s.

I am writing this essay fifty-six years later from my elderly mother’s apartment in Florida. I’m probably twenty pounds overweight, and almost fine with it. My mother just burned the turkey meat sauce, made from the overabundant leftovers from what could have won this year’s summer Olympics as the world’s worst turkey meatloaf. No self-respecting turkey should be subjected to being made into my mother’s meatloaf. There is blue and gray smoke filling every corner of the four-room apartment, and, sitting on the balcony overlooking the outhouse on the golf course, my eyes are tearing up. Well, at least we’ll be able to go out and have Chinese. As we leave the apartment, we see there is a red fire truck parked out front. Not for us, though.

“How often does this happen?” I ask her. “Oh, about once a week,” she replies, both unselfconsciously and unapologetically. The end of the turkey is clearly not a blow to her self-esteem. She is still twenty-seventh in double boiler. With a medal and a trophy. And a cherry on top.

David Albert is a homeschooling father, writer, and speaker. He is the author of “And the Skylark Sings with Me,” “Homeschooling and the Voyage of Self-Discovery,” “Have Fun. Learn Stuff. Grow. Homeschooling and the Curriculum of Love,” and “What Really Matters” (with Joyce Reed). He lives, works, and writes in Olympia, Washington. When not learning with and from children, writing, or making music, he is raising funds for community development projects in South India and his foundation Friendly Water for the World (FWFW), which promotes the international use of biosand water filters. His latest book is “Dismantling the Inner School: Homeschooling and the Curriculum of Abundance.” 

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