Perfectionism and praise

Published by Lori Pickert on March 7, 2008 at 08:44 PM

An interesting article in New York Magazine: How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise.

Offering praise has become a sort of panacea for the anxieties of modern parenting. Out of our children’s lives from breakfast to dinner, we turn it up a notch when we get home. In those few hours together, we want them to hear the things we can’t say during the day—We are in your corner, we are here for you, we believe in you.

Dweck’s research on overpraised kids strongly suggests that image maintenance becomes their primary concern — they are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down.

Their meta-analysis determined that praised students become risk-averse [my emphasis] and lack perceived autonomy. The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”

It's not a terribly new idea. Just have to hop on over to Alfie Kohn's website and reread Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job!":

Are our reactions helping the child to feel a sense of control over her life -- or to constantly look to us for approval? Are they helping her to become more excited about what she’s doing in its own right – or turning it into something she just wants to get through in order to receive a pat on the head?

Or, check out Kohn's 1997 book Punished by Rewards (interview referencing the book here).

As we've been discussing both here and in e-mail and on some of your blogs, perfectionism tends to shut kids down — they stop being interested in doing things that they don't immediately excel at. Bronson's article, the same as Kohn's ten years ago, suggests that if we praise end products rather than effort, kids are less likely to dig in to a difficult task. What do you think?

Related stuff:

It's not (all) about the art

The perfectionist


Comment by MamaBird on March 9, 2008 at 01:42 AM

I used to teach and loved Alfie Kohn. I think it's a mix for me in reality. I think that descriptive praise is far more helpful than generalized praise. But I also think different personalities respond to different kinds of responses. And not everyone's intrinsically motivated. I definitely see the benefit in kicking most commentary back to the children in question... ie, what do you think yourself?

Comment by Sarah Jackson on March 9, 2008 at 03:10 AM

I'll come back with something insightful, but I wanted to thank you for providing the inspiration for our evening conversation while I'm visiting my aunt. She too is a homeschooler and I'm sending her your way.

Comment by michelle gragg on March 9, 2008 at 05:06 AM

Hmmmm... I agree and I disagree. I think that overpraising is bad but no praise is worse. I really have struggled with this because I have a daughter who asks me for praise. Aren't you so proud of me? Don't I look beautiful? So for her I give her praise and affirmation when she has done nothing at all instead of tying it to something. I also will ask aren't you so proud of you?

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 9, 2008 at 07:02 PM

thank you, mamabird :^) i love alfie kohn, too - i don't always agree with him 100%, but he never fails to get me up on my feet, talking fast and gesticulating.

sarah, do come back & tell me what you guys talked about!

michelle .. mm, your comment is interesting since, as i read this, i thought .. well, there must be many paths to perfectionism because my older son is definitely one (and i am a recovering perfectionist) and i don't think this is what made him this way, since i rarely praise him. is it worse?! lol - probably! somehow he ended up being a perfectionist anyway.

the asking for praise is very interesting. i almost feel our whole society is *saturated* with praise — where else do our kids pick up this understanding of this is the way the world works — be great, get praised for it?

in my art class, i praise the specific things they are doing ("you really added a lot of detail", "i can tell you were looking very closely", etc.). sometimes a generic "great job" slips out and i will verbally stumble as i attempt to recover and make it about something specific. "great job, kid .. COUGH .. you are observing very closely!" (smooth, very smooth)

if the kids were producing works of art (rather than practicing their drawing skills), i would try not to praise at all, but keep my comments to questions and observations. "tell me about your drawing", etc. praise would make it about pleasing me, i think, and that's not where i want it to go - i want them to set their own goals, and tell me how they feel about how successful they were. i *don't* want to make it about seeking my approval or defining success by what i think.

when it comes to my own children, i am not a praiser. i love, i protect, i champion, and i encourage — i rarely praise.

while writing this comment, my eleven-year-old wandered into the room. (i'm not making this up!)

me: [brief explanation of original article] "do i praise you?"

him: "no." [not even a second's reflection needed!]

we then had a conversation about the whole topic, with much hilarity on his part (i knew he'd be amused!), and finally:

me: "do you think i *should* praise you more?"

him: "no. .. because when you *do* praise me, i think, 'wow! mom is praising me! i must have *really* done something good.'"

i think i talk with my boys a *lot* about the work they do, what they are learning, what i am learning, my work, etc., but our conversations are definitely not focused on me praising them. good, bad, or indifferent, that's my parenting style. but this is really making me think.

Comment by molly on March 10, 2008 at 12:43 AM

This is so funny because just this morning I stumbled upon those five reasons to stop saying good job on another blog! I hate to admit this is news to me. Not the over praising/or empty praise topic - I've heard that for years. I probably say the exact words "good job" too often. In fact, I even say "good J - O - B" sometimes. But I feel like the kids and I talk so much during the day about the ups and downs, how accomplishing things make them feel, that the words aren't just empty or expected. I mean it when I say it - like today when we rode our bikes all the way to the park - a very big first for us - and when they rode to the top of the hill without getting off and walking I really meant "Good Job". But now I have some food for thought - perhaps how I mean it is not how they perceive it. Perhaps I relate praise to recognition...lots to think about that I haven't thought about before. Can't wait to come back and read more comments.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 10, 2008 at 03:31 AM

i agree molly - the generic praise vs. specific praise is old news - but i was interested in the idea that generic praise might exacerbate perfectionism. the idea that praising kids gets in the way of their figuring out what they're getting out of a situation .. interesting.

Comment by mary on March 10, 2008 at 03:43 AM

I know that I over use the "good job" because I hear my 5 year old saying it when playing with her sister. I had read the Kohn article at some time before the kids. I know that I'm aware of the idea of overpraise but my little mimic has shown me that I often fall into the habit. Thanks for sharing this with us. I wonder how hard it will be for me to eliminate good job.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 10, 2008 at 03:16 PM

oh, mary - how many times have i heard the boys parroting what i say?! usually in a way that makes me wince - lol.

it's like catching a glimpse of yourself in a mirror.

i think sometimes we just say these things as a way of keeping things moving - we're not even aware of saying them.

Comment by estea on March 11, 2008 at 11:08 PM

o i am SO VERY guilty of the generic/too much/faint don't-bother-me-now praise syndrome. and (again shirking responsibility!) it is a direct result of super duper deluxe authoritarian parentage (but all they knew, so there you have it). the first instinct when one has received criticism and comparison as the sole input on the developing harddrive is to swing aaaaall the other way across into reactionary with your own kids. "must make up for what i didn't receive" blah blah. so. hard. to tone it back. i try, truly.

that said, there's no "one-size fits all" allowance here that i can see. it would be nice to have the The Way to praise (and parent) but alas.

but good article. and once again, we are twins, mostly, in this thinking.

related aside: "when everybody is special, no-one is"


six degrees of related aside: M met Brad Bird at work thing and he was, actually, incredible. and they swapped cds. HOW COOL IS MY DUDE.

completely unrelated aside: you might enjoy this article - old but still interesting . . .


"Why teach drawing to accountants? Because drawing class doesn't just teach people to draw. It teaches them to be more observant. There's no company on earth that wouldn't benefit from having people become more observant."

could my comments be any wordier?

you're so awesome. and so am i. <--------- generic yet heartfelt.


p.s. tell your sister she doesn't win.

Comment by estea on March 11, 2008 at 11:39 PM

it wasn't brad bird it was pete doctor, monsters inc. director.

ok, so i'm not awesome. at remembering!


Comment by Lori Pickert on March 12, 2008 at 12:19 AM

you're awesome at *everything* else. ;^)

thank you SO much for the article!! :^D)

i completely agree (of course) re: one-size-fits-all -- but i do think this conversation has made me pay more attention to the way i talk to the boys (all day long) (every day). and that's probably good.

(pete doctor! so cool! :^D)

Comment by Teri on March 13, 2008 at 03:56 PM

What don't I win?

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