Too Much of a Good Thing

praise-a-child-1024x625When you have dogs, you spend a lot of time telling them how good they are. Literally everything they do is deserving of praise, and, because they are dogs and they adore you, they eat up each one of your accolades with a silver spoon, licking their chops while drooling for more. 

“Good boy, Magic!” I call out when he eats his breakfast without my coaxing or cajoling him with tiny bites of his favorite treats. “Good girl, Molly!” I say, when she fetches a specific toy from her basket. “Good dogs!” I exclaim, when they conduct their outdoor business in record time so we can scurry back inside where it’s warm.

When my son was growing up parents were advised to lavish similar praise on their children. “What a smart boy you are!” we might tell them when they learned to print their names or recite their address. “That song you played on the trumpet was amazing!” “Your Lego buildings are great!” “I loved the picture you drew for me, you are so talented!"

It seems that conventional wisdom has modified that advice. Parents are advised against over-praising their children, at least without some qualifications. Instead of blanket statements like “you are so smart” or “what a good artist,” it’s been suggested that we quantify our accolades with specifics. “I know you studied a lot for that spelling test and it worked!” or “I can see you worked really hard on that picture, and I love all the colors you’ve chosen.” Apparently these kinds of statements encourage children to strive to be better, and reinforce the concept of acquiring knowledge and skill for its own sake, rather than simply to please someone else or live up to the standards that have been set in your mind by unqualified praise and adoration.

The basis for this change in thinking has to do with new neuro-scientific discoveries about the brain, which tell us that our brain is capable of growth and change throughout our entire lives, rather than being fixed at a certain capacity from birth. From this knowledge, psychologists and educators have extrapolated that children who are unconditionally praised tend to grow up thinking of themselves as “fixed” learners, as if their abilities are complete and unchangeable, while children whose actions are specifically noticed believe that effort is worthwhile and will lead to further learning.

I recently read an article summarizing research on this subject, and found myself getting teary-eyed. The descriptions of a “fixed learner” described me as perfectly as if the researchers had reached inside my head and taken notes on what they found there. "The fixed learner cares first and foremost about how they will be judged, smart or not smart,” the article contends. “They reject opportunities to learn because they might make mistakes. They are afraid of effort because they feel dumb and believe if you have ability you shouldn’t need effort. They don’t recover from setbacks, and decrease their efforts when they reach one."

Check. Check. Check. And check again.

I wondered - could my entire perception about myself have been different? What would my life be like now if my parents had employed this new method of effective praise rather than always telling me how smart and sweet and beautiful and good I was?

I know, it’s a ridiculous first world problem and I was immediately ashamed of myself for even thinking about it. I was the most fortunate of little girls, growing up as the only child of two parents who thought the sun rose and set on their precious daughter. No matter that they treated me somewhat like I treat my little dogs, lavishing love and kisses on me every time I turned around, making me believe the world was my oyster and I could do or be whatever I wanted.

Certainly they thought they were doing the right thing, although I’m quite sure neither one of them had been pampered or praised throughout their early years. They were children of the Depression, and although my mother was also an only child, she grew up in a small country town with parents who worked their farm from sunup to sundown. My dad was in the middle of a pack of six children, all of them less than two years apart. He considered himself lucky not to go to bed hungry at night. There was little time or thought for praise or self-esteem building in either of these households. I don’t know why my parents decided it was important to treat me differently. Perhaps because they had longed for it themselves? Perhaps simply because time and circumstance allowed.

I am an encourager by nature. I want people (especially children and dogs it would seem) to feel successful and worthy. I want that for others because I want it for myself. I’ve never responded to “tough love” motivation tactics. At the first hint of criticism, I shut down and crawl back to my corner, certain that I’ll never amount to anything ever again. But I will blossom with tender loving care and gentle encouragement. If ever anyone needed proof that positive reinforcement is an effective psychological behavioral tool, I’m your test case.

As one who believes in the power of positive thinking to determine attitude and action, it was at first difficult for me to reject the notion that constant praise can backfire in a child’s emotional development. My husband and I are both only children but brought up in very different family environments. We each tend toward perfectionism but for very different reasons. My in-laws were never quite satisfied with anything in life - everything could always have been just a little bit better, thus their praise for any of his accomplishments was always tinged with some disappointment, no matter how minor. My parents thought everything I did was perfect - so I was under pressure to uphold my reputation! Two very different methods of parenting, with similar outcomes in psyche.

I’m thinking this new concept has some definite merit, at least in child-rearing. Encouraging the specific effort, noting the positive outcomes, these are just different ways to provide positive reinforcement to children as they grow  without the added pressure of needing to live up to certain expectations - positive or negative.

But I’m wondering how effective it would be with dogs? Imagine this - “Magic, your breakfast must have tasted very good this morning, you ate it all on your own!” or “Molly, I can tell you want to play with the fuzzy carrot squeak toy. I’m glad you found it in the toy basket!"

Maybe in their case I’ll just stick with “Good dogs!” In the canine world, I don’t think there’s any danger of having too much of a “good” thing.