by cheri block
I have been thinking about this topic for a while, but an article in the Wall Street Journal motivated me to write. The WSJ article says in summary: we are praising our employees, our students, and our children too much. The result?
If we (the employee, the student, the child) do not receive praise and kudos often, then our “self-esteem” goes down, our productivity goes down, our will to perform goes down.
Although fodder for the psychologists, the notion of “self esteem” seems to be one hatched in the 60’s, fertilized in the 70’s, developed in the 80’s, and mandated in the 90’s.
Certainly, those Americans who lived through World Wars I and II and the Great Depression weren’t pondering their places in the universe (or if they got a trophy for Most Inspirational), but rather where their next meal would come from.
So, what about praise in the educational arena? My father, Dr. Block had views on this topic. He was a vital and driving force in my development, namely because he was a funny but critical father. Those terms “funny” and “critical” aren’t your usual wine pairings, but in my world, they went together like peanut butter and jelly.
My dad did not praise his four kids very much. We knew he loved us because he spent so much time with us. He was a big kid himself and regularly played basketball in our driveway with the entire neighborhood, all while juggling the demands of his dental practice and his Mayor of Fremont responsibilities. We designed homemade kites, learned to snow ski, developed our trout fishing techniques, and listened to his endless lectures on morality, the birds and the bees, the wonders of nature, and on several family members who bugged him.
When one of us did something noteworthy, such as winning 3rd place in the local flower show (me–for my Calla Lily) or scoring a touchdown in Fremont Football (my brother Jim), Dad usually said, “Good job.” That was IT! No trophy to commemorate the occasion, no grandstanding to other parents, no calling all of his patients to discuss Cheri’s Calla Lily.
When I began my teaching career in 1972 at the age of 21, I naturally employed the same motivational techniques as Dad. And I found they worked!
- Students did appreciate the unvarnished truth about their writing abilities.
- Students did appreciate earning a B when they realized that their grades had been inflated in previous years.
- Students flocked to my room for after-school help on lousy papers.
When students asked for extra-credit, I asked them if they believed there would be extra-credit in the “real world.” What would that look like?
When students lost credit for being tardy to a class, they were never tardy again. At the first offense, they moaned, whined, and sometimes cried, “they didn’t realize they were tardy.” I harkened back to my old Mervyn’s job in 1966, sharing with them that if I punched in 15 minutes late, I didn’t get paid for my tardiness. Many of these students had never had a job before, so their faces just stared back at me, like those pasty white mannequins in large department stores.
When students were caught cheating, and I had to meet with both student and parent, I often felt that I was having a religious experience. The scenario went like this: I disclose the method of cheating, student confesses, parent makes excuses, they both ask for forgiveness, and then ask me to discount the cheating and make everything OK. Of course, I am a “real world” thinker. The student flunked the assignment, paid penance by staying after school, and spent at least a month trying to earn my trust back.
So, where do these examples leave us, as parents and educators?
We are obligated not to create false beliefs in our students and children. However, we are also graced with the opportunity to encourage our students and children to do their best. As Roy Davis, one of my husband’s coaches, said in 1968, “Make your best be good enough.”
Kindness and humor, joined with the truth, can produce people who understand the following: that life in this world can be tough, and one must work diligently and ethically to succeed in it.
This belief has been the intrinsic motivator for many successful people, most who had a parent, grandparent, teacher, and coach who told the truth.
I remember when my son Ben tried out for the Hopkins Junior High School basketball team in 1988. Ben was fast but short. Coach Aldo Anderson, our personal friend, cut Ben from the team. He told Ben that he (Ben) was a real hustler but didn’t have the skills needed to make the team. Ouch!!
As adults, we all have stories such as that one. The point here is to ask the questions:
- Are we over praising today’s youth (and that goes into their 20’s)?
- Are we giving too many trophies for everything?
- Are teachers writing “good job” on every paper?
- Are employers pumping up employees unrealistically?
- Are parents making everything their kids do OK?
And what long-range effect will this have on our kids, students, and employees?
My answer: They are all in for a rough road ahead.