Over-praising our children

The other day, I assisted a presentation given by my daughter at her school. The presentation was on rabbits and she had been working on it for months. Her partner in crime, one of her best friends, happened to be sick that day, so a nice young man stepped in and helped her out.

I would love to say that I was filled with pride as she stood before the class, her teacher, me, my husband and my mother telling us everything we need to know about rabbits. Alas, that was not the case. They began their presentation with an obscure little piece of avant-garde theatre involving a rabbit (my daughter) and some sort of predator( boy) that was never named. After the play, her presentation took the form of a quiz. Except that her answers were incomplete and didn’t go into any depths at all. She couldn’t even answer simple questions like what do rabbits eat or why do hares mostly live in the forest and not rabbits, even though she brought this fact up in the first place. In fact, her audience seemed to be more knowledgeable about the furry little creatures than my daughter. Which begs the question: what the heck had she been doing all this time?

Playing. Her partner in crime was one of her best friends. I had been asking her for weeks about her project and she kept on telling me that it was all done, the same answer she gave to her teacher. And in her mind it was. The way they do projects is by writing down the questions they have on their topic and then going about and finding that information. Sadly, they don’t seem to take much time reading the information. How do I know? My daughter told me she couldn’t find what rabbits ate in all the books she had or in the encyclopedia article on rabbits. Hmmm… So she answered the couple of questions she had (with a yes and a no) and that was that- job well done in her head.

Not my proudest moment as a parent. Then, we took her to her piano lesson and it was the same story. She had not been practicing and, unless she stepped it up by quite a few notches, would not be ready for the concert coming up.

All this to say that it made me think of our unfortunate trend of over-praising our children. It makes me think of all the times I said, “Lovely!” to a drawing that obviously took 2 seconds to make, or to half-assed birthday cards that you can’t say “this sucks” because they wrote I love you! on it. Or all the times I caught myself praising them for normal things like brushing their teeth or not spilling milk.”Way to go the bathroom!” “Good getting ready on time!” That sort of thing.

My problem with praise is two-fold. First of all, kids start doing things just for the praise. In school, they do the work in order to please the teacher and ultimately us, the parent. Everything has to be triggered by a desire to please. I don’t want that for my children. I would like them to know how it feels to do a good job at something simply because they felt like it, not to please me or their teacher or whomever. I want them to feel the satisfaction of excelling at something. I also want them to know that anything worth doing won’t come all at once- that they have to practice in order to get better at it and that if they don’t push themselves, nobody will.

My second problem with praise is that we do it when it is not deserved. I do it all the time. The whole notion of positive reinforcement is not a bad thing, but I think we take it too far. In the case of my daughter’s presentation, she had invited us to her class and in her mind clearly felt like she had done a good job. She was expecting praise and actually got it from her peers (they like the little play.) But I couldn’t do it. And this is where it is hard. Because I had to tell her that I didn’t think it was her best work. That I thought she could do better. Which in a way is just making her want to do better to please me, which is not what I want. I tried to tell her that, that I wanted her to feel how it feels to do a good job at something, but somehow I think the concept was lost under the fact that I was clearly not pleased by her work.

I could start looking over her shoulders everytime she does her homework again, or acting like the helicpoter parent, making sure she is doing everything right, but I don’t think that is the solution either. All I can hope is that she learned something by the fact that my husband and I did not say good job when there was clearly no good job done. And that something besides fear of disappointing me will motivate her to do better next time. Who knows?

Or maybe she is happy doing a sloppy project on rabbits because the topic is boring anyway and is saving her real effort for her presentation on nuclear physics…

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