Today I am reading about the harmful things that praise does to people in Alfie Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards.” I can recall times when exactly what he talks about happens to me when praised. Now I no longer want praise. I can see how much harm it has done me in the past. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. One think that stood out to me is that he said that when praised, our brains automatically evaluate that praise, compare it to what we already think or know, and turn on our self-criticising feature. Don’t we all do that? “You are so thin!” Thoughts inside are images of others who I know are thinner. I begin to think how I wish I were as thin as they are. I begin to feel angry with myself for not exercising enough. I begin to try to explain to myself why I am not as thin as I should be. I look down at my tummy and feel self-conscious. I want to hide from the world.
He also mentions a quote from a poet and one from an artist. They feel evaluated and worried about future performance when complimented on their work. He says people are less likely to try again for fear they’ll mess up their good review by adding it to a bad one. This is true for me. After praise, I become worried about what people will think of me the next time, and I slow my progress in the next one. With my writing, after praise, I stop working as much. Why? It’s beyond me, but it’s true. JK Rowling, author of the famous Harry Potter series, finished her entire book, handwritten, before passing it on to a typist (meaning likely nobody saw it until the first draft was entirely complete). Could this have been the secret to her success?
An argument he gives on the praising of children is that studies show that it makes them less interested doing what they received praise for, just as with rewards. We can destroy our child’s interest in doing what they love by praising.
He says (and so true) that we are a Skinnerian society (B.F. Skinner is the “father” of behaviorism), and “praise junkies.” A junkie being someone addicted to and not able to do without something, how is this good? How could it be good to have our self-worth tied to the praise we must have? It is no wonder depression is so high in our society, being that it is so addicted to Behaviorist theories! The Behaviorists believe that it is good to give punishments, rewards and praise. After reading what I have so far of Alfie’s books, I am going to change my ways!
I think of my kids and their baseball and softball season this late spring, and see how praise destroys a good thing. My son did not want to play his last game. Why? I think it was due to the cheering. We as parents have no idea how the cheering destroys these kids. When we say, “Good job,” after they do not hit the ball, we think this is like a band-aid to patch up the fact that they did not receive the loud whistles, claps and cheers of the entire team and audience, when in fact, their ears know that they did not do well, because they did not hear the loud whistles, claps and cheers of the entire team and audience, and they know if they had hit the ball and made it to base, they would have received those things. They are smarter than we think they are. They know what we want them to do. I also noted the polite clapping when children made base because they got “balls” pitched to them, and get to walk to base. The kids walked with their heads down, and frowned. They do not feel that the polite claps are a good sign. They see it as failure.
Noting all this, I tried to minimize the effects with my kids, telling them it was about having fun, exercising, and making friends. I don’t think this helped. I think it made matters worse. It probably made them feel that I was saying, “Since you aren’t playing well, I want you to know that it is not about being good at it. It is about having fun, exercising, and making friends,” which, indeed, was not the case. But it is what they think about themselves and what they think we think about them that affects them, not what we think about them.
Alfie says that our goals with praise are to encourage, spur on, motivate and improve self-esteem with our praise. All of the many studies show that praise does exactly the opposite of all of those things. Crazy, eh? But true!
Not praising, punishing or rewarding encourages, spurs on, increases interest, helps improve performance, and keeps self-esteem at a good healthy level (steady and true) instead of making it go up and down and up and down (unhealthy).