As I See It
The Fallacy Of False Praise
By Jill Chapin
Nov 13, 2005 - 6:54:00 PM

Ahh. Self-esteem. It feels so good, doesn't it, believing in yourself and having pride in what you've accomplished? How does one acquire self-esteem? Do you buy it, or win it? Are you born with it? Or is it true that you actually have to earn it? If so, doesn't that take time and hard work that is often punctuated with failure and disappointment? Why go to all that trouble when schools are peddling self-esteem to students so freely these days?

If you have ever attended an awards ceremony, you may have noticed that children are frequently rewarded for things that are little more than steps in the right direction toward their goal. But with the reward given prematurely, kids mistakenly think they have already arrived, when in reality they have barely left the starting gate.

Conversely, those not rewarded often assume that they are being punished, since they were denied a prize. You can't blame kids for getting mixed messages, because deep down, they know that these awards are mostly for expected, as opposed to exceptional, behavior. They sense that our standards are falling to the lowest common denominator as they witness a blizzard of awards raining down on almost everyone.

I'm not exactly the first to caution restraint in lavishing unwarranted amounts of praise. According to David McCullough's John Adams, when he became a teacher after graduating from Harvard in 1755, John Adams acknowledged his preference to encourage and praise rather than scold. "But," he said, "we must be cautious and sparing of our praise, lest it become too familiar."

When we reward minimal, as opposed to outstanding, achievement, what are we teaching our children - that showing up to work on time for a month warrants a raise? This "what's in it for me?" attitude may make it difficult for them in the real world where they will barely get a pat on the back, much less a bonus. Will their self-worth be internalized enough to tolerate the absence of constant praise and recognition?

Even more curious are schools who offer Perfect Attendance prizes. Aren't they really rewarding those with the best immune systems, allowing them to compete against contagious children who were considerate enough to stay home?

As more children arrive at school with little sense of their value because parents aren't letting them know how special they are, teachers try to pick up the slack. It is commendable that they care, but it is not their responsibility to build a hollow shell of self-esteem. Rather, it is their job to teach skills that will fill their students with a solid core of confidence. Sappy but true, learning really is its own reward.

Children should be praised for effort and for moving in the right direction. This encouragement is what keeps them going when they'd rather give up. It's another thing to let them assume they've already reached their goal. Rewarding a failed effort sends a confusing signal. Perhaps just trying is good enough?

Do you give partial credit for a wrong math problem if correct steps were shown on the test but a careless calculation nixed the right answer? Are we so afraid our kids can't handle the defeat of getting it wrong?

A world wide study of industrialized nations showed that American students scored near the bottom on math tests. However, when asked how well they thought they performed, Americans scored near the top.

Why should we worry if a mechanic knew the procedures in assembling an engine but missed a step because he was in a hurry or tired, or had personal problems? He feels good about himself. Heck, he even has an Outstanding Effort Award. Forgetting one little thing is no big deal.

Unless, of course, that engine happens to be outside your window during take-off.

© Copyright 2007 by