By Lael Whitehead
I took my two-year-old granddaughter, Kymera, to the local park on the island
where she lives. When we arrived, she ran straight to the ladder that leads
to the top of the slide and scrambled up it. This is a brand new skill for
her. On my visit two weeks before, I’d had to help her to the top. She was
clearly delighted with this new ability and repeated the climb several times
(after sliding down the slide all by herself!)
A mother was there with some older children, and she and I got chatting. When Kymera
swooped by on another round of ladder-climbing, the woman said, “Good girl!
You are really good at climbing!”
Kymera paused, very briefly, looked at the woman with surprise, then carried on.
It was as if she was taken aback,
for a moment, at being watched and evaluated. The climbing was something
she was doing for its own delight. Having someone call her a “good” climber
suddenly made the activity feel different: it became a performance.
This episode reminded me of an afternoon many years before when a neighbor had invited
me and my girls to come to her house for a session of art-making. My neighbor
had been to art school, but had not pursued a career as a painter. Her seven-year
old daughter liked to paint and draw, and the mother was keen that her daughter
“become an artist.” My three daughters, Lauren, Marley, and Julia, who at
the time were nine, seven, and four, loved drawing and painting too. We
thought an “art day” would be a lot of fun for every one.
The paper and paints were out
on the table when we arrived, and the children dived in immediately. Julia,
the youngest, gleefully set to work painting bright, messy collages of color.
The other girls decided to paint horses. Lauren added a large barn and a
yard full of chickens to the background of her picture. The two seven year
olds painted their horses grazing in open fields.
At one point my neighbor’s daughter
hurried anxiously over to where we were sitting with our coffee mugs. She
held up her painting to her mother for inspection.
“Is it good, mom?” she asked.
“Let’s see. Yes, it’s a very good
painting. Well done!” said her mother after a pause. Her daughter’s face
I still recall the look on Marley’s
face at that same moment. She glanced up, surprised, at our neighbor’s comment.
She looked over her friend’s painting – the one that had earned such praise
– then back at her own picture. I could just tell what she was thinking:
“Is mine good?” Until then, painting a “good” picture hadn’t been the goal.
The activity of painting had been a process, an exploration, something fun
to do with her friends.
Our neighbor then got up and came
over to inspect the other girls’ pictures.
“Hmm. Very nice,” she said, looking
at Marley’s picture of two horses side by side atop a small hill. “You did
a good job on this tree. Maybe add some shading to the hill here to give
it depth? That would make it even better.”
Marley grew very quiet. She stared
at her picture. Then she put the paintbrush down.
“Want to play hide and seek?” she
asked the other girls. I could tell that Marley’s interest in painting was
gone for that day.
Years later, Lauren, an unschooler,
decided to try going to high school at the age of fifteen. She came home
after the first week and summed up the school environment this way: “It’s
all about being watched and timed.” Although she stuck it out for two more
years, she found the constant surveillance oppressive. The relentless evaluations
– doled out in the form of grades, prizes, honor roles, late slips, and
detentions – were a shock to Lauren. She was appalled that the adults in
that world thought kids could thrive under such conditions.
The sense of being “watched and
timed” seems to take all the fun out of things. Even praise can stop an
activity in its tracks. I am pretty sure that if I had started coaching
Kymera on how to climb the playground ladder “better,” or faster, or more
efficiently, and then applauded her for doing it “right,” she would have
quit the game pretty quickly. For her, learning to climb the ladder was
its own reward. She wasn’t there to please Gramma, just as Lauren wasn’t
in school to please her teachers. As soon as any activity becomes more about
winning approval than about learning new skills, joy gives way to anxiety.
Play becomes work.
What is really going on when one
person evaluates another? Why is praise as toxic as censure to relationships?
If you think about it, evaluation,
or “judgment,” is a way of subtly assuming power over others. When you say
to another person, “good girl,” or “you are a good painter,” or “you are
smart,” or “gifted” or “talented,” your words imply that you are in a position
to judge. You know better than they do who they are and what they need.
You are entitled to reward or punish, praise or censure because you are
a cut above them.
Being around people who seek to
evaluate us feels risky. After all, they might disapprove. When children
become aware of being “watched and timed,” they naturally grow tense and
wary. Sometimes they will avoid an activity altogether if they feel judged,
as seven-year-old Marley decided to do. Other times, particularly when quitting
is not an option, children will become hooked on praise as a way of avoiding
the potential shame of failure. Painting, for my neighbor’s daughter, had
evidently ceased to be a source of delight in itself. Instead, being “good
at art” had become a means of winning her mother’s approval. Instead of
exploring her natural creativity and inventiveness, she anxiously tried
to paint what she thought her mother would like. Needless to say, she didn’t
grow up to be an artist. Why would she, when there was no real joy in it?
So, if praise is disempowering,
what can we offer our children instead? How can we encourage without seeking
to dominate or control?
I suggest we celebrate!
When my granddaughter and I are
together we spend a lot of time sharing “high-fives.” We shout “yay!” or
“You did it!” when one or the other of us makes it to the top of the slide,
or rolls down the hill, or figures out how to fit the square block in the
square hole. I don’t say, “good girl!” to her. And she never says “Good
Gramma!” to me. Instead, we celebrate each other’s victories and triumphs
with smiles and whoops and laughter.
We also mourn the disasters. When
the house built of carefully-placed blocks collapses, we shout “Oh no!”
When we slip on the playground ladder instead of climbing to the top on
the first try, we say “Oops!” or “It’s a bit hard!” and try again. We don’t
make a “teaching moment” out of what we are experiencing so that we do better
next time. We just keep living and learning, trying things out, playing
We all love to share our experiences.
We love to see another’s eyes light up when we tell our story, or when we
show what our hands have made. When another is curious – genuinely interested
in what we are doing – we feel honored. But we are not asking for approval.
We are asking to be seen, to have our lives witnessed by a caring friend.
We want someone to say, “Yay! You did it! High five!”
Our young children can show us a
thing or two about celebrating life. They know how to pursue an activity
for the sheer thrill of it. They don’t need our tips for improvement. They
don’t want our gold stars or our applause. They just want our companionship
and our shared delight. Let’s give it to them. Hip, hip, hooray!
Lael Whitehead is a musician
and writer, and the mother of three grown unschooled daughters. She
lives with her husband in the Gulf Islands of BC. Lael is the author of
A Path of Their Own: Helping Children to Educate Themselves.
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