Letter to the editor: To praise or not to praise — that is the question

By Marc A. Puig —

Dr. Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset, addresses the self-esteem movement
that permeates much of our society today, including our educational
institutions: “If people have such potential to achieve, how can they
gain faith in their potential?

How can we give them the
confidence they need to go for it? How about praising their ability in
order to convey that they have what it takes? In fact, more than 80
percent of parents told us it was necessary to praise children’s ability
so as to foster their confidence and achievement. You know it makes a
lot of sense.”

This is the self-esteem movement in a nutshell –
praise fosters achievement. But even after 40 years, the research in
favor of this prescription is sorely lacking. Reality cannot be
reversed; in the end, we must return to the wisdom of the past –
achievement fosters praise.

This seems far less kind. But what
is kind in the short-term may be harmful in the long-term and vice
versa. There are several unintended side effects of the self-esteem
movement including: lower motivation; less willingness to take on a
challenge, diminishment in the zest for learning, among others. If you
think about it, this actually makes perfect sense. If praise is my
motivator, I will not take a risk on something too hard. I will opt for
success over growth.

So how are we to encourage our children and
students? Most importantly, elevate effort. If your child is working
diligently to master something, praise the process (practice, study,
persistence, and good strategies). What they gain through the process is
far more valuable than short-term praise. Self-esteem is gained by
taking on a challenge and mastering it.

It cannot be given, it
has to be earned. But we can support our children through the process.
Randy Pausch in his bestseller The Last Lecture puts it this way, “You
give them something they can’t do, they work hard until they find they
can do it, and you just keep repeating the process.”

It is a sad
commentary on the state of our society today that we cannot celebrate
the achievements of some without fear of wounding the self-esteem of
others. True self-esteem is made of tougher stuff than that; it cannot
be damaged in such a way.

Disappointment does not crush
self-esteem and often drives us to even greater achievements. It is all
in the attitude. Thomas Edison was once asked how it felt to fail so
many times. His response: “I never failed once. I invented the light
bulb. It just happened to be a 2,000-step process.”