Feeding the need for praise

Have you gotten an “applause note” recently?

If you are in an office with a lot of “millennials” (twentysomethings), chances are you have. Jeff Zaslow wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal that “companies are celebrating young employees by throwing confetti at them, passing out ‘applause notes’ and giving them kudos just for coming to work on time.”

Why? Because this is the generation that the “self-esteem” movement built. For decades, experts have told us that “helping our children grow up with strong self-esteem is the most important task of parenthood” and “high self-esteem is the single most important ingredient for success in life.” (Emphasis mine.)

Really? Well, now the generation that grew up regularly praised for breathing is in the workplace apparently needing praise for walking and breathing at the same time.

So, what’s wrong with constantly affirming workers, anyway? Carol Dweck, a renowned self-esteem researcher currently at Stanford University, says that people often recognize hollow praise for what it is. But moreover, she told me, people who desperately need praise to function are probably far more open to being manipulated by praise, false or otherwise, than folks who develop an internal sense of their own worth.

Oh, and if and when the praise-hungry face a boss who sees not firing someone as affirmation enough — as a few of mine sure did — these young people will fall apart.

Dweck says that in a misguided effort at a good thing — positive reinforcement — leaders of the self-esteem movement “convinced parents they could hand their children self-esteem on a silver platter, just by telling them how wonderful they are.” In reality, the constant praise for everything and nothing is creating children who are, she told me, both “entitled and fragile.” Worse today for fear of bruising a delicate psyche, “parents withhold important criticism that could help the child to do better next time — and so essentially teach kids that a failure is up there with the end of the world.”

Those of us who want to buck the culture may not be able to save the twentysomethings who need confetti with their morning coffee, but how about today’s generation of children? As a mother of four young kids, I want to know how I can build resilient children who can thrive without the applause-o-meter constantly on high.

What to do? Dweck told me, for starters, to forget the “smart” label, as in “You are so smart!” or “You are so good at math!” Dweck said it’s much better to praise what it took to get the end result: That the child faced a challenge, worked hard, didn’t give up, stayed focused and so on. Her research clearly shows that kids praised for being “smart” are more likely to eschew new challenges because they so fear failing — and losing that “smart” label. But kids praised for how they handle the “process” are more likely to eagerly embrace a new challenge — and succeed.

And instead of the typical “wow, you’re great” conversations at the dinner table, we should ask our kids: “What’s a challenge you faced this week?” “How did it go?” “What’s a mistake you made today — and learned from?” “What’s a failure you dealt with in the last month — that grew into something positive?”

Dweck says that kids who see themselves as “fixed” in their skills, talents or intelligence tend to be fragile. But kids who believe those things can be acquired through hard work, facing challenges and learning from mistakes tend to be far more resilient, positive and optimistic.

Surely we just want our kids to know that we, as their parents, love them unconditionally, just because they are our children. What a gift we give our kids when, in contrast to the culture, we give them the freedom to learn from their failures, and the encouragement to grow from their mistakes.

Confetti with coffee can never provide that kind of a boost.

(Betsy Hart hosts the “It Takes a Parent” radio show on WYLL-AM 1160 in Chicago. Reach her through betsysblog.com.)

One Response to "Feeding the need for praise"

  1. kanawah  September 7, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    Yes this is a ‘bit excessive’. If you do not show up for work on time, you need a swift kick in the rear.

    This is much like the over use of the work ‘hero’ it is bing massively over used.

    To me a hero is some one who goes above and beyond, not some one who is ‘just doing their job’.

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