Winning and Losing: When is Praise Positive or Negative?
Fall sports are in high gear once again, after summer’s slower pace. Parents are lining soccer and football fields watching their kids practice and play competitive sports. It’s fun for everyone. It’s great to see kids running up and down the field, instead of sitting in front of an electronic screen playing video games. Team sports can teach children a wide range of skills and abilities that are very useful in adult life.
Parents sometimes wonder what kind of behavior should they praise--effort, participation, performance, attitude, or team spirit? A recent article in The New York Times ("Losing is good for you" by Ashley Merryman), September 24, 2013, underscored some of these challenges. For example, in the past, trophies were a rare reward, only given out to the top players and teams. But today, they are frequently given to all of the kids for just participating. Indeed, trophy and award sales are now an estimated 3 billion dollar a year industry!
Of course, everyone appreciates acknowledgement but when is recognition and praise for simply showing up overdone? Clearly, some children are more talented, successful, and motivated than other youngsters on the playing field. Everyone knows who these kids are. Shouldn’t these youngsters receive more recognition?
Furthermore, there is some evidence that simply praising one’s innate abilities, while pleasing, can have negative consequences as well. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, found that while children appreciate praise, they may fall apart at the first experience of real challenge. They become demoralized by failure.
Many college students, used to receiving good grades, praise, and reward for simply doing their work in high school, find themselves doing poorly when significantly more effort is required.
In my first year of college I received my very first “F” on an English paper. I was shocked and angered! I had never received a failing grade! I stormed into my professor’s office and demanded an explanation; after all, I thought many of my ideas were first rate. He looked at me squarely in the face and said, “It’s because your paper is a piece of garbage—filled with spelling mistakes, poor grammar, and disconnected ideas. If you want to do well in my class you have to do better than this!” I was humbled. I went back to the drawing board and got a B on my next paper.
Merryman points out that in life, adults experience failure far more frequently than success. Losing occurs more often than winning. Learning how to cope with setbacks, challenges, and loss is probably far more important than feeling good about showing up. Sure showing up is necessary—but it’s not sufficient for success. Achievement in life comes from learning and growing from bumps in the road and sticking with it when the going gets tough.
Parents naturally want to nurture a positive self-image in their children. We want them to feel good about themselves. We want them to have self-confidence. But how do we help them develop these traits—especially when they may be untalented in certain areas? Overdoing praise may not be the ticket for admission for a successful adult life. Indeed, it may nurture over-confidence, which can have negative consequences.
Merryman goes on to say---“When children make mistakes, our job should not be to spin those losses into decorated victories. Instead our job is help kids overcome setbacks; to help them see that progress over time is more important than a particular win or loss, and to help them graciously congratulate the child who succeeded when they failed. To do that, we need to refuse all the meaningless plastic and tin destined for landfills. We have to stop letting the Trophy Industrial Complex run our children’s lives.”
What do you think?