Parenting for a Peaceful World by Robin Grille.
Praising and rewarding kids is just plain common sense, and good parenting - isn't it? Who would doubt that it's good to give children praise, or prizes when they perform to our liking?
The praise-and-reward method has a scientific seal of approval, since it is backed by a ton of evidence from the most methodical and ingenious research that money can buy. Actually, it springs from the work of psychologists who painstakingly discovered that they could train rats to run mazes, pigeons to peck at coloured buttons, and dogs to salivate at the sound of the dinner bell - by giving them a controlled schedule of rewards. ...
One problem, though. We don't particularly care about the quality of a relationship we develop with a lab-rat. We are not concerned with rodents' developing self-esteem, their sense of autonomy or independence, nor do we give a hoot whether the rat will get interested in trying bigger and better mazes of it's own accord, long after we stop rewarding it with little food pellets. And that, as most of our experts have failed to tell us, is where the whole fancy technology of 'reward, praise and reinforce' falls to pieces. ...
When the little gold stars or jelly-beans stop coming, the behaviour we were trying to reinforce tends to peter out. Children who have grown used to expecting praise, can feel crushed when it doesn't come. This dampens their perseverance. There is plenty of evidence that in the long term, reward systems are ineffective.
Contrary to popular myth, there are many studies showing that when children expect or anticipate rewards, they perform more poorly. One study found that students' performance was undermined when offered money for better marks. A number of American and Israeli studies show that reward systems suppress students' creativity, and generally impoverish the quality of their work. Rewards can kill creativity, because they discourage risk-taking. When children are hooked on getting a reward, they tend to avoid challenges, to 'play it safe'. They prefer the minimum required to get that prize. ...
There are many more studies showing that, while rewards may well increase activity, they smother enthusiasm and kill passion. Individuals anticipating rewards lose interest in activities that were otherwise attractive. It seems that the more we want the reward, the more we come to dislike what we have to do to get it. The activity required of us stands in the way of our coveted prize. [If we want kids to read it would be] smarter to just give the kids more interesting books, as there is plenty of evidence that intrinsically enjoyable activity is the best motivator and performance enhancer.
If you read this blog regularly, you will know I've looked at this book before. Last time I took a quote from this book I focused on the first half of the book which is concerned with a history of parenting styles, and I wasn't that impressed with the author's approach to history. However, I think the second half of the book, which discusses child psychology and current parenting strategies, is stronger and a better fit with the author's professional expertise. The author is a psychologist and psychotherapist who particularly focuses on child development and parenting.
I also thought I'd come back to it because I'm going to attend a talk by Robin Grille in Darwin on 3 September on setting boundaries with your toddler, and I thought I'd explain why I'm still interested in hearing from him on this topic. (If you live in Darwin and are interested in getting tickets, they can be bought from the Childbirth Education Australia NT branch - he will also be giving a talk on babies and their emotional development, and a talk on issues with our education system.)
So, to the quote, Robin Grille's argument is not actually that 'praise is bad' but that we should try to build a relationship with our children that is not built on dominance and judgement, or making children feel that our affection is conditional on them 'performing adequately'. So it's about the right kind of praise.
Robin Grille suggests praise like 'good girl' or 'you're a great piano player' is ok occasionally and spontaneously. But it would be better to say, 'I love the way you play the last bit' or 'you can hear how much you enjoy playing that piece' or 'did you enjoy that?' or 'what do you like most about playing piano?' or 'wow, I can really hear how much time you've spent practising' Where the first kind of responses are about judging a child and making them feel they have to live up to an image, the second kind of responses are about tapping into the child's inner experience, encouraging them to think for themselves about what they are doing, showing them what is going on in your head, and just generally connecting. Specific praise feels more sincere and is generally more useful than being told generally that I'm great, though I definitely don't mind being told I'm great occasionally.
My own experience is that I grew up in a praise-heavy environment, both at school and at home. There was praise delivered with selfless intentions - to grow my confidence, to make me feel that 'girls can do anything', and to recognise my own pleasure in my success etc. and some delivered with more selfish intentions - to encourage convenient behaviour, and to encourage me to perform impressively. I don't remember being unhappy because of praise generally. I was a very confident little kid. But it largely worked because I genuinely enjoyed and was good at doing the things I was being praised for. I do remember hating praise where I felt it was manipulative. For years I hated learning piano, and I felt that I was being brought out just to perform so my parents could show off how clever I was. I hated my dad talking about my achievements to his colleagues, because I felt like he saw me as some kind of performing monkey. I understand now that I'm older that he was genuinely proud but that's how it felt at the time.
So addicted to praising me was my dad that he would think things I did were cleverer than they were. Like this time I had to write a story for school inspired by a picture of an old woman in a rocking chair - the gist of the story was that she was stuck in the same memory in her chair (like a groundhog day type thing), and he told everyone how clever it was that the story itself kept going back and forth - a 'rocking chair story' he called it. What was so weird about him saying this was that he hadn't asked me if I intended to create a 'rocking chair story', and in fact I hadn't. I was in middle primary school and couldn't have come up with an abstract structural concept like a 'rocking chair story'. He quite happily read things like that into lots of things I did, and I usually didn't say anything because I didn't want to be stupider than he thought I was/ought to be. I know my dad was genuinely happy for me when I succeeded, but I know a lot of the praise was to make himself feel good - praising your kid for things they didn't even do is a pretty clear sign that you are living vicariously through your child's success.
And the truth is that everything I persisted with and ultimately did really well at - reading, writing, cello - I did because I loved them, not because I was praised or displayed. In fact, I was frequently criticised and belittled by teachers because I read and wrote the 'wrong' kind of stories - melodramatic and often violent fantasy novels. But I found them so enjoyable that I didn't care what my teachers thought and did it anyway.
It was not until much later that the drawbacks of even benevolently intentioned constant praise started to manifest. Once I left school I remember feeling so lost. Even at uni, I felt lost, because I switched from doing sciency subjects to doing Arts/Law. Doing science and maths there are usually right answers, and it's just a matter of understanding and memorising them. It was very unnerving to have a 5000 word essay to write and no idea whether you were even on the right track with your answer. When I did poorly at law exams, getting a Pass/Credit average, it really hit me hard, and I realised how much of my self-identity was caught up in achieving. And even though I knew rationally there was nothing wrong with me - the Melbourne Uni Law had a policy of ensuring 50% of the students who passed only got a 'Pass', and no one doing the course could be described as stupid or slack, so the bell curve pressure was enormous - I couldn't help feeling... well... shite. And what was most frustrating is not even understanding where I'd gone wrong, or recognising the problem but not knowing how to do better within the time limit.
Let's not get into self psycho analysis but I'm fairly sure I wouldn't be driven to do all the research on this blog if I wasn't so terrified of 'failing' as a parent.
So even though I intimately understand the problems with over-praising, it has been with me for so long that I find it a very, very hard habit to break. I have terrible trouble not saying 'good girl' to Bethany. It just slips out of my mouth all the time. And Grille's right - the times when it slips out of my mouth it's entirely manipulative - like when I've been trying to persuade Bethany to come to me and she eventually comes, or she finally holds still and lets me change her nappy.
I have been making a conscious effort to try and say why I'm happy with her behaviour rather than just label her. For example, 'That's really helpful if you hold still so I can do your nappy up. That makes it much easer' or even just 'good holding still' rather than 'good girl'. She doesn't understand the difference yet, but she's understanding language so rapidly now, I want to change my habits before she understands what I'm talking about. Moreover, I am trying to make an effort to play games with her that are not about getting the 'right' answer. I play letter and number games and 'what's that?' with her cause that's what I played as a child. She enjoys these games, and I don't pressure her to answer or get the answers right, but I don't want our relationship to just be me telling her whether she's right or wrong. I'm trying to dance more, to play more chasey and tickling games, to play hide and seek, read her the stories she brings me in silly voices, and just muck around.
That said, I think there will be times where I will be using praise in its manipulative form. I'm perfectly willing to use it to get my baby to eventually sleep in her own room alone, if that's what it takes. I'll be using rewards and star charts, if that's what it takes. But being aware of the potential problems, I will try not to use these kind of solutions on an everyday basis, and only after giving other more pro-social techniques a good go.
(As to what the pros-social techniques are, I have some books on this topic, but they'll have to wait for another post on another day.)