Education we give shapes the praise we give

I read a lot about how to give praise to children because so many child prodigies grow up to be disappointed, depressed low achievers. A lot of that sadness is a result of people telling the kid over and over again how great they are. It robs the child of incentive to do the hard work required for anything substantial, but also, it gives the kid no sense of control over their lives — they did not earn that greatness, they were born with it. So they feel that they have no ability to earn greatness, they just have to wait for it.

So for cello, I focus a lot on how hard my son works, and I say something specific like, “I like how carefully you’re working on that scale.” I try to focus on the hard work rather than easy comparisons to others. Also, I tell myself that this will help us both make sense of the world if he chooses not to do cello. We are not aiming for a world-class cellist but a world-class person and hard work and diligence in cello is a step to create that person.

So I pay special attention when I read about how to compliment employees on work well done. Employees do better work if you compliment them in a way that’s customized to their needs. Different people have different intrinsic motivators, and they care about different things. For example it doesn’t work to compliment someone on their social skills if what they really care about is power.

It makes sense that kids would need customized compliments just like they need customized learning. However kids get told what to learn and how to learn it, which makes customized encouragement seem hallow.

I also realized that as parents, we appreciate our kids more if we compliment them based on who they are and not based on what we think people should want to be good at. Self-directed homeschooling allows kids to do what matters to them which in turn allows parents to compliment kids on the process of doing the work that matters to the kids.


7 replies
  1. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    This post makes me feel less bad about my approach to teaching (when I was still teaching) that focused on the process of practicing with high standards rather than praising compliance for the sake of classroom management. Doing this didn’t make me good at the job because I inwardly refused to be bubbly and sugar-coat, and any public school position is an (un)glorified PR job to philosophically confused parents and hands-tied administrators.

  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I really like this post for it’s concise, focused, and practical message/advice that can and should be used for all children. I like it because it’s good advice that a child needs to experience from an adult where the child is being treated older than they actually are. My experience with children is very positive when they’re treated more as an adult than a child. As a general rule, they know more and are capable of more than we’re often willing to acknowledge. When they’re treated as a young adult, that’s generally how they’ll respond to you and they’ll feel more appreciated and valued. Hope and expect the best from them – give them things to aspire to – and it’s more often than not that you’ll be pleasantly surprised and enjoy the journey with them.

    • Jenifa
      Jenifa says:

      I like this post and comment, because it feels like it is direct advice on how to be a good aunt.

      Sometimes a parent’s influence can seem so large, that nothing anyone else does can help. This gives me hope.

  3. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I found myself wondering if the sort of comments that are traditional and typical (e.g. “You’re really smart!”) make more sense more in the alienated school system than they do in the self-directed learning system.

    In our schooling system, the outcomes are far, far separated from the inputs. The premise given is that all the kids in Kindergarten will go to college. The inputs are crappy math books, tons of worksheets, and frequent testing. The path is unclear. One imagines that one must be “smart” (whatever that means) to go to college, or that people who go to college are “smart.” And one knows that the premise is false – most kids in kindergarten won’t actually go to college. So the praise might suggest that the premise is more likely to hold true for the individual student.

    It’s like a kind of magic. Alakazam! You are Smart. You will go to College. It’s cargo-cultish worship of the not comprehended yet terribly important. It’s praying to the gods of Scholarship.

    This can only make sense insofar as other assessments of work done or progress towards predicted outcome make no sense. That is our current system – there is no apparent relation between the work done in grade school and the work done in college, beyond the fact that in both places work is done.

    Of course, another and perhaps more appropriate praise might be “You are diligent and punctual!”

    We who are more involved in our children’s education, and who will be so for many years (a characteristic of the schoolteacher is her very brief involvement in each child’s life), have a different perspective on their development and the skills they have or may acquire to further themselves. It makes less sense for us to punt and say “You’re smart!” We can make more cogent, helpful, and pointed comments.

    Because of our intimate, long-term involvement in our children’s lives and struggles, we get to say things like “I heard you practicing that exercise in Davisson for a half hour straight, making sure your pinky finger lifts straight off the fingerboard rather than curling back. It’s that kind of persistence and diligence that will make you a better musician” rather than “Wow, you’re so talented as a musician.” Somebody who knows our children only part-time for a year might not make such relevant praise.

    (We just had a pi break; my son was interested in a brief discussion of how irrational numbers touch the infinite, and represent useful physical realities surpassing our understanding)

    I am surprised this post did not get more comments, although perhaps I shouldn’t be. It’s not as polarizing or absolutist as many of your posts, not as dripping with shock value. Subtlety doesn’t make eyeballs stick and click.

    I agree completely with your conclusions here: the likelihood of a child hearing praise that is relevant and helpful rather than standard and alienating is increased by homeschooling. This is within our ability to understand and provide as homeschooling parents.

  4. Isabelle Spike
    Isabelle Spike says:

    This post is so right-on. My own experience of the “you’re so smart! You’re such a talented musician!” type of praise was that it worked fine until I was put into a new environment. When I changed school districts at age 13, suddenly I wasn’t the “smartest” kid in the room anymore, or the “best” musician in the orchestra, and it was crushing. Becoming a smaller fish in a bigger pond is devastating when you believe that the reason you’re succeeding has to do with how you ARE and not what you DO. I think my husband had the same experience going to college, and then grad school, and taking physics courses – in HS he was “a genius!” but by graduate school he was an average guy getting a PhD, and struggled with comparisons between himself and other students. I hope we can avoid this with our own kids.

  5. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Also, now looking at the title of this post – ‘Education we give shapes the praise we give’ – makes me think an equally good title for this post would be – ‘Praise we give shapes the education we give’.

    And when Commenter above says – “I am surprised this post did not get more comments, although perhaps I shouldn’t be. It’s not as polarizing or absolutist as many of your posts, not as dripping with shock value. Subtlety doesn’t make eyeballs stick and click.” – I couldn’t agree more.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      I wanted to say in the last paragraph – I couldn’t agree more with the ‘surprised this post did not get more comments, … ‘ sentiment.

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