Categorized | Features, Grandparenting

Are we over praising our grandchildren?

March 8 DW 133 (1)

Photo: Miriam at skating practice

 

By Ellen L. Weingart

Maybe it was her fascination with all things Frozen, but shortly before our granddaughter Miriam turned 5 earlier this year, she started taking ice-skating lessons. Her father, our son Harris, dutifully emailed us photos and videos of her skating.

Skating, I suppose, is an exaggeration. It was more like walking on the ice. There was no sliding involved. And certainly no spinning or even a single axel. Still, we were truly impressed with her ability to confidently move on ice and the determination she showed in getting to that point. And we let her know how highly we thought of her burgeoning skills.

Did we overdo it?

According to some experts in child development, praising a child for accomplishments they haven’t really attained can actually be detrimental.

When Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, gave a group of fifth-graders a relatively easy test, all the children did well. After the test, half the kids were told they were “smart,” the other half that they “worked hard.”

When the children were given a choice of whether the next test should be similar to the first or should be harder, most of the children praised for their effort chose the harder test while a majority of the kids praised for being smart chose the easier one.

Dweck’s conclusion? Praising children for their intelligence tells them not to risk making a mistake.

Worse yet, when a final, easy test was administered, the children praised for their effort improved their score while scores for those who had been told they were smart fell.

The “A for effort” movement was just getting off the ground when Miriam’s dad and his brother, Andrew, were in school. Having grown up in an achievement-oriented world, I wasn’t buying the concept. Besides, the real world rewarded people for their accomplishments, not for “trying hard.”

When my children brought home a test with a perfect score and a teacher’s comment of “great effort,” I wondered how the teacher made the distinction between my child having worked hard and my child acing a test that just wasn’t challenging for him. Either way, I’d tell my son “good job.”

Both of my children succeeded academically and neither wimped out when it came to choosing their high school courses, taking as many advanced placement classes as fit their schedules. They did well in extra-curricular activities, too, taking on responsibilities and leadership roles and pushing themselves to succeed. They weren’t successful in all subjects — art and sewing come to mind — but they could handle failure.

They graduated high school as valedictorian and salutatorian in their respective classes, went to top-notch colleges and are doing well professionally.

Maybe I’ve forgotten, but I don’t think we told them they had done a good job when they hadn’t. Rather, I hope we offered them support and tried to help them find ways to do better the next time. We did praise effort, but effort loses meaning if it doesn’t lead to increased accomplishment.

I don’t think we offered false praise, at least not too often. Children after all know when they get a low grade or strike out at the plate. If we praise children for non-accomplishments, how will they know

when we’re sincere and why would they strive to do better?

What I don’t think we did successfully — and certainly didn’t do consistently — was be specific in our praise. Instead of a simple “great job” we should have specified what was “great.” The ability to decipher what was being asked for in a math problem? The thought that went into a science experiment? The development of a character in a writing assignment? Doing so allows for the possibility of praise even when the overall attempt fails. “I like the colors you chose in your art project” offers a child support even if the creation is nothing to brag about.

As grandparents, we have the chance for a do-over. But as grandparents, we frequently see through rose-colored bifocals. Is there really anything our grandchildren are not best at? Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Why shouldn’t they have people in their lives who think just about everything they do is wonderful?

I think we did pretty well praising Miriam. Rather than telling her what a great skater she was, we praised her stick-to-itness and remarked upon her ability to get across the ice without falling. She’s now truly skating — still no axels that we know of — and enjoying the experience.

We’ll keep praising our grandchildren, but we’ll try to be specific in our praise and not overdo it. I do, however, have a memo to myself about the 2030 Winter Olympics.

Join the conversation by writing a comment below or emailing me at eweingart@thefiftypluslife.com.

Video: Miriam at skating practice in January

Video: Miriam at skating practice in March

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