Unabashedly, I love fan mail. (Hint, hint.) I really
do. It means at least somebody is reading my stuff. As a former book publisher,
I know that’s something one can’t necessarily count on. (We used to figure
that for every six books we sold, only one got read, though it might get
read again and again, especially if it was in a library.) The fact that
someone would actually like it is a bonus, and then that readers would go
out of their way to tell me so is a real treat.
Of course, I much prefer the long letters, where people
tell me what they like in detail, and how it relates to their own experience.
I can only write out of my experience, so when I hear about that of my readers,
it expands my horizons.
I like good criticism, too. I’m a big kid, and I can
handle it. I’ve got an ego as big as a large hippo, and with as thick a
skin. Sometimes I think it would be better if it was a little thinner, or
at least that I was a better
listener. Intellectually, I figure I’m wrong about as often as the next
person, or maybe perhaps even a little more so. But hippo-headedness can
be debilitating, and a short vacation stay in a re-education camp might
do me a little good.
So while an occasional “Wow!” will allow me to puff up my chest a little,
a thoughtful mixture of praise and constructive criticism, provided in a
thoughtful manner, by someone whom I have learned to respect and trust,
is what I like best. And if it happens often enough, it will even motivate
me to become a better writer. Maybe even a better person (as yet to be determined).
And the ones I abhor most? I sometimes get emails and letters filled
with exorbitant praise from someone who is actually trying to manipulate
me into doing something I wouldn’t consider doing otherwise. I hate that.
And it happens far too often.
So what is all this fuss about praise? Praise was (and still is) often
thought of as a motivator. And for good reason. It generally works for adults,
or at least adults in the workplace. Grownups like being praised. Combined
with little rewards (they don’t have to be very large) and perhaps a bit
of chocolate, adults will “generally speaking” be motivated to work harder,
be more productive, and, if the studies are to be believed, feel happier
about themselves. Apparently works with drug court participants, too, in
keeping them on track (a little tidbit from my former professional field).
I lived through the whole self-esteem movement for kids in school. It
has strange origins in the work of the disciples of Ayn Rand (see, for example,
The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem by one of her lovers Nathaniel Branden),
and was then adopted by political liberals in California where they created
the state’s Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility.
The Task Force’s 1989 report helped persuade schools around the nation to
nurture their students’ self-esteem as a way of eliminating social problems
and academic failure. As my daughter Meera explains (from her direct experience),
this is where you not only hear “good going” and get a high-five when you
fall off the gymnastics high bar flat on your face; you then also get a
medal and a trophy for finishing twenty-seventh.
My friend Alfie Kohn took off after the rewards and praise thing in engaging
although often breathless prose (Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with
Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes). I actually
like the book (and his work) a lot, and it was (and is!) a welcome corrective.
He’s on the side of the angels, but the reality is that Kohn often chose
to ignore (or mischaracterize) empirical evidence in favor of the theoretical.
Much of the experimental evidence is much more subtle than he suggests.
Many of the studies indicate students who are liberally praised become risk-averse,
and will choose easier rather than more difficult tasks at which they feel
certain they will succeed. They will also become more “competitive.” They
may be more likely to take “short-cuts.” They might seem less “curious.”
But they don’t necessarily become less “successful” as a result. (In short,
perhaps they are in training to become bankers?) (To be totally fair to
Alfie, I think both Punished by Rewards and his other works indicate
that he would be more upset if he came to believe that gold stars, incentive
plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes actually worked, as he is even more
troubled about the ends to which they are applied, and seeing people successfully
manipulated towards those ends, than by the means themselves.)
One of my favorite authors Carol Dweck (Mindset: The New Psychology
of Success) found that what you praise children for in school may be
as important as whether you praise them. Praising for effort, experimentally
at least, seems to result in better future performance. Children who are
praised for effort when they do poorly on tests perform better the next
time around; children praised for intelligence do markedly worse.
Frankly, all the research (including that of Dweck, and that summarized
by Kohn) can make your head hurt, and it should, because it universally
has one thing in common: school. The children tested are in school. Those
doling out the praise are either teachers or researchers who look like teachers.
Studies in the home with parental behaviors as the variable (the type that
magazines like Parenting seem to love) are of children who spend
six to eight hours a day in the box, and then are inundated with schoolwork
to be done at home. (I won’t deign to even grace it with the appellation
homework, which really should be something else entirely.) The parents went
to school and are the ones who voluntarily send their kids off to the dayjail,
and then, in many cases, go off to their own. The performance measures studied
are school performance measures. (No one seems interested in courage or
empathy or intuition, and rarely in creativity, and maybe that’s a good
thing as long as it helps keep the schools’ grubby hands off of them.) Workers
spent thirteen years or more under minute-by-minute surveillance. (So did
prison inmates who, according to at least one study, excel in what Daniel
Goleman calls “emotional intelligence.” Emotionally intelligent people supposedly
make better life choices. Hmm. I do not know how well they respond to praise
from prison guards.) “Watch what I can make Pavlov do,” thinks the dog.
“Every time I drool, he’ll immediately smile and write in his little book.”
Earlier, I indicated that praise (with or without chocolate) actually
works as a motivator among adults in the workplace, at least over the short-term.
And it does (the evidence is pretty overwhelming). But there is one glaring
exception: blue-collar unionized workers in factory or factory-like environments.
They are more likely to feel they are being manipulated, and, having recognized
solidarity with each other rather than acquiescing quietly to rigged competitions
that are not in their interests, they just don’t trust the cheerleaders
or their motives. (They may also know from experience that praise is often
followed by mass layoffs, or unnegotiated demands for higher productivity.)
Perhaps there are also children who can see things with clearer eyes than
The value of praise (or lack thereof) comes from context, from the respect
that has been earned by the people doing the praising, by the trust one
places in their motives, by the specificity of the praise being offered
and that it is not formulaic or formulaically or over-liberally proffered,
and by the receptivity of those on the receiving end. Anyone who thinks
that praise by definition doesn’t work hasn’t spent enough time around a
good gymnastics or fencing coach.
For praise to work, there can be no hypocrisy in the exchange. No child
(or adult) wants to hear, “I expect you all to be independent, innovative,
critical thinkers who will do exactly as I say.” And then to be praised
almost entirely for the latter. Faced with such an affront to our self-respect,
the healthy human response would be to seek out solidarity and actively
rebel. Some do! Sadly, too many of us – and the kids – with the inner voice
of fatuous praise now firmly implanted, simply learn to tune out. And when
we are praised for the wrong thing, we may forget what is really important
– to us.
Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition (for our nonguns, of course).
We’ve got a whole lot of unlearning to do, and perhaps we can have an inner
* * * * *
P.S. Now that I’ve got your attention, I want to add something about
the gold stars thing (one of Alfie’s favorite bêtes noires – that’s fancy
talk for anathemata, which is fancier talk for the banes of our existence.)
When I was six-and-a-half and growing up in New York City, and having just
experienced bouts with chicken pox, mumps, and measles, all in the space
of four months (maybe rubella, too – this has become the stuff of family
mythology), apparently I was dehydrated, and absolutely refused to eat.
(My maladies all had the positive benefit, by the way, of keeping me out
of school.) I won’t chalk up my refusal to my mother’s now legendary status
as a lousy cook. (In case she’s reading this, I don’t want to damage her
self-esteem, so let me rephrase: I applaud her for putting in all that effort
in attempting to feed us all [even if that included the infamous lungen
stew – beef lungs], now banned for human consumption by the Food and Drug
Administration...see, there really is a God, and He takes pity upon the
abject plight of little children. This being written during the summer Olympics,
I thus hereby award her a shiny twenty-seventh place medal in double boiler.
And to make sure I get this right, I shouldn’t say she is a lousy cook;
it’s just that her cooking is abominable.) I wouldn’t have known any better
about the food at the time.
No, I expect that the combination of being six-and-a-half, having lost
control of my body, and having my mother chasing me around the house and
neighborhood with a fork was enough to make me realize that regulating my
own food and water intake was one of the few places I could actually exert
some power and realize even the barest modicum of autonomy. Fuming, screaming,
and crying not having succeeded, my mother (who was yet to become a first-grade
teacher) resorted to gold stars for eating.
Now I didn’t care in the least about the gold stars. But fifty stars
accumulated and I “earned” a toy gun. And so I ate. To this day, I remember
heading out to the toy store on Union Turnpike, my mother having decided
that she wouldn’t buy plastic, and so I got a terrific one, with a shiny
wooden stock and metal barrel. All of a piece with my Davey Crockett cap
(poor raccoon, although maybe it was ersatz). Fantasy gunplay for six- and
seven-year-olds makes very healthy good sense. It is one place they (we!)
can express autonomy and some power over a world of which we rarely have
any other control. Except in doing the Gandhi no-food thing.
Food wars continued for years thereafter. Gold stars were lost to the
repertory. And every time she praised a few forkfuls, I felt that I had
engaged in an act of self-betrayal. I learned to hide and dispose of food
I wouldn’t eat (occasionally got caught, too), and to beg to be allowed
to do my “homework.” I was now a legendary poor eater. (Two legends in one
family!) But I better rephrase that: I wasn’t a poor eater; I just consistently
didn’t eat. Except at grandma’s.
I am writing this essay fifty-six years later from my elderly mother’s
apartment in Florida. I’m probably twenty pounds overweight, and almost
fine with it. My mother just burned the turkey meat sauce, made from the
overabundant leftovers from what could have won this year’s summer Olympics
as the world’s worst turkey meatloaf. No self-respecting turkey should be
subjected to being made into my mother’s meatloaf. There is blue and gray
smoke filling every corner of the four-room apartment, and, sitting on the
balcony overlooking the outhouse on the golf course, my eyes are tearing
up. Well, at least we’ll be able to go out and have Chinese. As we leave
the apartment, we see there is a red fire truck parked out front. Not for
“How often does this happen?” I ask her. “Oh, about once a week,” she
replies, both unselfconsciously and unapologetically. The end of the turkey
is clearly not a blow to her self-esteem. She is still twenty-seventh in
double boiler. With a medal and a trophy. And a cherry on top.
David Albert is a homeschooling father, writer, and speaker.
He is the author of “And the Skylark Sings with Me,” “Homeschooling and
the Voyage of Self-Discovery,” “Have Fun. Learn Stuff. Grow. Homeschooling
and the Curriculum of Love,” and
“What Really Matters” (with Joyce Reed). He lives, works, and writes
in Olympia, Washington. When not learning with and from children, writing,
making music, or working at his day job, he is raising funds for community
development projects in South India and his foundation Friendly Water for
the World (FWFW), which promotes the international use of biosand water
filters. His latest book is “Dismantling the Inner School: Homeschooling
and the Curriculum of Abundance” (Hunt Press, 2012). You can buy his books