In praise of a little less praise.

chalkboardLiz Fraser, 5th November 2009.

This being Bonfire Night, I’m going to talk about….parents’ evening. Of course.

            Well, not of course, but our daughter’s first parents’ evening at Secondary school is tonight, begging much hand-waving and the obvious question ‘Who organises a parents’ evening for the 5th of November??’ I guess they forgot to remember, remember it. Consequently we are going to sit there earnestly discussing our child’s participation in DT and geography to the background accompaniment of screamers, Oooooh and Aaaaaahs. It’s diary planning gone mad if you ask me – please laugh at that. I’m being sarcastic – and I’m going to bring along a sparkler or two, to make my point…

Parents’ evenings in our house are little more than a jolly chat with a teacher or two, and home we go. This is quite simply because our kids are all – and I blush as I write this but it’s true – inexcusably clever and doing very bloody well indeed at school, without having to try very hard. Annoying, I know, but what can you do? We are very fortunate in this. For many mums and dads out there, I imagine the moment when you come face to face with the awfulness of your child’s academic progress this term, or discover that he’s been posting pieces of Pepperami into the school’s only French horn – again – must be little short of wince-inducing.

            But off to parent’s evenings we shall go tonight, because they are important, for several reasons. They’re a chance to actually meet the people who pass on some knowledge to your kids and, you hope, inspire them to want to learn and better themselves. If you discover that the chemistry teacher is about as inspiring as a wart, suddenly your child’s utter indifference to the order of the Noble gasses in the Periodic Table might seem more understandable. If the geography teacher turns out to have knock-out BO, you can forgive your child for dragging his feet all the way to school on Double-Geo-BO Tuesdays.

            Another useful thing about parents’ evenings is that you can raise issues about your child’s teaching that are worrying you, or bugging you. And I have one issue that is really bugging me right now. (Actually I have hundreds, which is why I’m such a miserable, moany old bag, but one at a time, eh…)

            What’s getting my goat today, is this: the ever-increasing over-praising of children. Not just praising  where it’s due, or where they seem to need a little sunshiny boost in the form of a ‘well done!’ Praise is vital to encourage children and increase their self-confidence. Praise is good.

No, I’m talking about a blinding saturation of words of wonderfulness, a torrent of ‘bigging up’, an avalanche of ticks and top marks and teeny weeny achievements that apparently merit a big fat gold star.
I get about ten emails a week from my daughters teachers, containing what are known as Good Behaviour Reports. Most of these reports read as follows:

“A positive attitude to learning displayed. Level 1 occurrence, dealt with by class teacher. Action Taken: Verbal Comment.”
To you and me, this translates as: “your kid put their hand up, answered a question, and I, the teacher, said ‘yes, well done Emily, that’s right.’”

Do I really need an email to tell me this astonishing exchange has occurred?

 Now then, quite apart from the fact that completing and sending all these hundreds of emails is presumably taking up a huge amount of the teachers’ valuable time, not to mention clogging up my Inbox, the main reason I have such an issue with this is neatly illustrated by our friends from Spinal Tap: when you’re already up at level ten where can you go from there? Where?

The only place is up to eleven. Many people seem to operate at level eleven: they talk about giving it 150%. 150%? I only work at about 80% most of the time. If I ever go as far as even a paltry 100% there’s going to be an explosion of some kind, causing Global mayhem. And with all these people putting in 110%, 150% and sometimes even an inelegant 200%, I feel like a right slacker, I can tell you.

And where praising kids is concerned, just what is eleven? When a child is constantly praised and applauded and rewarded with Good Behaviour reports for answering a question in class, what on earth is going to happen when she actually does something really good? How do we get ‘that extra push over the cliff?’ Will they roll out the red carpet? Hire a brass band to play a suitably congratulatory fanfare perhaps? Send her to Disneyland for the weekend?

            When every correct answer is a cause for so much praise, how can you make a child feel any real sense of achievement? And there’s the problem: this constant trickle of pats on the head produces the exact opposite of what it’s meant to achieve. It doesn’t make kids feel good and want to try harder, because hey, they’re already doing perfectly well as it is. They, like, totally showed enthusiasm for learning and contributed in a postive way, yeah? Gold star, baby!

            This mass devaluation of success is made all the worse by the fact that kids see right through it. When I asked my daughter how she feels to get all these slips saying how good she’s been in class, she just replied: “Oh, everyone gets them. They don’t really mean anything.” Great. It also means that there’s a generation of kids out there who are growing up thinking they are really something special, when, frankly, they are little more than average and could do with a (figurative) kick up the backside to try harder. Nowt wrong with that. I kick myself up the backside on a weekly, if not daily basis. It hurts, but it sure makes me try harder.

            Just as exam results are now all but meaningless – where once As were for those who were outstandingly good, now an A simply means you’re not completely stupid and you’ve made a bit of an effort to revise, and you can join the other 80% of the class who got one and won’t get into University either – so praise is little more than a token gesture; a tick in the teacher’s box, to say he’s done his job and filled out the Good Report slips for the week.  

            I do praise my kids, far, far more than I was praised myself. But I try to keep it down at level 7 or so for everyday words of encouragement, to allow myself plenty of room to push it up to 8, 9, or even 10 if they’ve done exceptionally well at something. As Fatboy Slim said, ‘I want to praise you like I should.’ Like I should. Not obsessively, and completely out of all proportion, like I totally should not.
Who knows, one day we might even have a Level 11 day. But when it comes, I want my kids to know that they deserve it, and feel that tingling, wonderful, ‘I did it!’ rush, called a true sense of achievement.


2 thoughts on “In praise of a little less praise.

  1. Freddie

    Emails about good behaviour? Surely the bad behaviour should be more email worthy.
    I have found that my daughter’s teacher does not see the need to give her more work. She is at the top of the class, so why should she need more work?

    1. lizfraser Post author

      Totally agree. If there’s something I actually NEED to know about, then I’d like to know about it. Glad to hear yours is doing so well – but such a shame they’re not giving her more to do. We have the same issue sometimes, and the dreaded word ‘BORED’ raises its ugly head…


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