Regular readers of this column know that there are fewer bigger believers than I in the power of warmth and positive reinforcement to help our children realize their full potential. That does not mean, however, that constant praise is the way to do so. Last week, we discussed why all praise is not equal – i.e., praising children for effort yields very different results from praising them for their native intelligence. This week we will discuss the dangers of too much praise. (Again we are drawing on the research summarized in a February 19 New York Magazine article entitled "How Not to Talk to Your Kids.")
The publication of Nathaniel Braden's The Psychology of Self-Esteem in 1969 ushered in the self-esteem movement in the United States. Self-esteem was proclaimed the key to every aspect of life. The precepts of the movement dovetailed nicely with the needs of parents with increasingly little time to spend with their children. Parents convinced themselves that they could compensate for their absence with heavy doses of generalized praise of the "you're the greatest" variety.
Recent studies, however – some by early enthusiasts of the slef-esteem movement – have found that high self-esteem bears little relation to concrete achievement. In one comparative international study of math achievement, for instance, children in the United States ranked near the very bottom. Yet when asked to assess their own mathematical abilities, American children gave themselves the highest marks of any nation. (And this was at a time when only one in a thousand American students would have ranked in the top ten percent of Japanese students their age.)
Not only is there little reason to believe that constant efforts to build children's self-esteem boosts either their short-term achievements or their chances for long-term success in life, there is evidence that endlessly telling them "You're special," can be damaging. Since 1982, a team of psychologists has been evaluating American college students according to something called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. And they have charted a steady and dramatic increase in narcissism among those tested. That trend, they worry, could lead, among other things, to even greater marital instability, since narcissists have difficulty creating and maintaining close personal relationships.
When it comes to praise, it turns out that there can be too much of a good thing. For one thing, children can develop something like an addiction to praise and become unable to function without it. That can be a big problem later in life when one has to deal with employers and others who are less concerned with building one's self-image and more concerned with output.
Even during childhood and the teenage years, too much praise can come at a high-cost in personal autonomy and persistence. Children who are praised constantly for instance, do more eye-checking with the teacher to assess the teacher's reaction, and even when answering a question do so with the inflection of one asking a question, as if to elicit hints from the teacher whether what they are saying is right.
Among the most important qualities that we can imbue our children with is the ability to respond to setbacks and frustration with renewed effort and not by giving up. Based on monitoring electrical activity in the brain, scientists have been able to identify a specific area of the brain that governs the ability to maintain motivation over the long-run. The brain's reward center releases certain chemicals upon successful completion of a task. Another area of the brain monitors the neural reward center and sends a message to the rest of the brain when no reward is immediately forthcoming to keep plugging away because there will be a reward down the line.
But people show a very great difference in the number of such messages sent. In some people, the switch activated when reward is not immediately forthcoming is constantly lighting up; in others it is almost totally dormant. What explains the difference? Brain scientists speculate that too frequent rewards or praise can prevent the switch mechanism from developing properly, and thus the beneficiaries of too much praise will fail to develop the mechanisms that facilitate persistence.
A fair amount of lo lishma is a crucial incentive at the outset of Gemara learning, for instance, but if a student never learns to love the learning for its own sake, he will have a hard time devoting himself to that learning when it does not go easily for him.
Another reason that praise can be overdone is that all but the very youngest children tend to be suspicious of it. Praise has been shown to be a powerful motivator. But only when it is specific and based on real concrete accomplishments. But when it is too general or excessive, children tend to discount it, and often to draw the very opposite conclusions than the one offering the praise hopes to convey. When praise is out of all proportion to real achievement, the recipients are not fooled. Indeed they often assume that the one proffering the praise must think they have reached the limits of their ability and is trying to console them.
In that context, they often perceive criticism as a greater affirmation of their unrealized potential than exaggerated praise. And in that they may well be right, at least if the experience of Lithuanian yeshivos is any indication. While my rosh yeshiva could be very sharp in responding to a poorly formulated s'vora, I never once saw him respond that way to a weaker student.
I once spoke to an alte Mirrer, who told me that it is a big mistake to think that the bochurim in pre-War Europe were bigger ba'alei kishron than today. Just the opposite: He sees bigger ba'alei kishron today. The difference lies rather in the determination they developed in former days.
The great Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva Rav Nachum Partzovitz once responded to a student who complained that a particular distinction was "difficult to hear:" "Sometimes Mr. P. you must also learn to hear a shvere (difficult) s’vora."
The determination to plumb the depths of the Gemara in order to understand a fine distinction was what set apart the finest products of the pre-War yeshivos. And that determination we can be sure did not come from sitting around telling each other how smart they were or hearing it from their rabbonim.