Monday, 28 September 2009

Songs of praise

A new book called Nurtureshock is causing a storm across the Pond by suggesting that our modern, softly, softly, parenting tactics are fundamentally flawed and breeding generations of lazy, spoilt brats. Not having read the book I can't really comment, but reading the reviews I think they have a point or two to make.

It turns out that telling our little darlings that everything they do from a indecipherable scrawl of a drawing to a bashing out a few notes on the piano is 'absolutely brilliant' is doing them no good at all. The aim of such indiscriminate praise is to build self esteem, but high self esteem has no benefits (other than to make a child insufferably arrogant), according to the studies published in this book.

The second string to their theory is one that I have talked about on this blog before, the death of competition in schools in order to make all children feel equal. This is also a non-starter, as it just sails over the heads of the children who are all well aware of who is fastest, cleverest, prettiest and most popular, just as we all were in the harsh days of winners and losers that prevailed when we were educated.

I do think the book has got a point. A little constructive criticism goes a long way, and when I tried out this theory on my son this weekend it worked a treat. He was writing up his homework, letters appearing of every shape and size, and normally I would simply have praised him to the rooftops despite the fact that his 'b' was Lilliputian while his 'r' was gargantuan. This time as well as telling how well he was doing I pointed out that the letters were meant to be the same size and line up. He listened, tried harder and learnt something. A point to the authors of Nurtureshock.

However, before I relegate praising my children to the dustbin of child rearing theories, I would like to question the idea that high self esteem has no value. It may not, as the authors assert, have no impact on their marks or behaviour, but I can tell you from my own experience it makes you feel a lot better about yourself.

My mother was brought up by two clever parents who never saw fit to heap praise upon her for her achievements, now perhaps she is a case in point to prove the theories of Nutureshock, as she remained staunchly convinced of her own abilities. However, it having done her no harm she treated her own child, me, to exactly the same methods with a markedly different outcome.

I don't remember my mother ever fawning over my offerings from school. When I spent weeks making her a top in my sewing class she fell about laughing at the mangled fabric when I handed it over to her. Yes, her reaction was a fair and accurate reflection of the quality of the garment - it was appalling, I am no seamstress, but I was devastated. She was utterly unimpressed by the time and effort I had devoted to making the bloody thing, just because the end result was so rubbish.

The same goes for those daubed paintings I dragged home, they were never pinned on the walls with pride, again she just smiled and sadly patted me on the head saying that, just like her, I couldn't draw. Again true, I am no artist either, but again the truth hurt coming from my mum.

Even the things I am good at don't always hit the spot. I wrote an article once. My husband read it and it moved him to tears, he declared it brilliant as did the editor of the national newspaper in which it appeared. My mother read it and said it was 'Fine'. I suppose I should have recognised this for the high praise that it was, instead once again I was cut to the quick by her subdued reaction.

When I speak to my mother about this, she says I should know her by now, it's just her way, and I do try to take what she says as she means it, rather than how it can sound. From her an 'Alright' or 'Fine', is like someone else jumping for joy and spinning cartwheels of delight, but I think that inside me there will forever be a little child seeking that misplaced maternal pride that would, according to Nurtureshock, have done me so much harm.

Of course my mum does tell me she is proud of me, and as a grown up I know that her manner may not always imply it, but she does think highly of me when it comes to my talents. But as a child I desperately wanted her to think everything I did was wonderful, and because this was not her way I have been left with a sharp awareness of my shortcomings and any pride in my talents has been hard won.

I am sure some of this arises from my own personality. I have enough children to know we are all born with our own character traits no matter how we are brought up, but I do not believe that praising your children won't make them happier in the long run, and won't equip them with the confidence to enjoy life even if they aren't the best at everything.

If you can blast out a song on the karaoke stage, who cares if you sound like a cat being strangled if you are having fun? If you can splash a bit of paint on a canvas and feel a sense of achievement it doesn't have to be good enough to hang in the Tate. What is the benefit of making our children aware of their shortcomings? No amount of constructive criticism could have made me a better singer or artist, but without it I might have been able to get some enjoyment out of these activities instead of just feeling self conscious.

As with all things there has to be a happy medium. It's no good praising your tone deaf child to the rooftops only to see her humiliated on the X Factor as Simon Cowell snarls 'Who was it that told you you could sing?', to which she reples 'My mum', but equally if you make your child feel that they could always do better then you will strip away their self confidence and leave them handicapped in a world where brass neck and faith in your own abilities will get you a long way.

So while I intend to take a little of what the book says on board, and try to encourage effort and striving in favour of just saying everything my kids do is wonderful, in general I do think most of what they do is pretty fantastic and I am not afraid to tell them so. So I am sorry boys, if Nurtureshock is right, then I am going to carry on being a bad mother.


  1. I think there is a way of giving constructive criticism and it is usually to say something positive about the work first. If the child is very young and is doing there best anyway, then to ridicule their offerings is just immature and meanspirited. With an older child, it can be seen where that childs strengths and weaknesses lie and constructive criticism and advice can be given. In the case of your mom, she was parenting the only way she knew how. There are two methods of parenting, we can simply repeat everything our parents did with us, good or bad or we can take the good and use it, leave out the bad and try and be a better parent. You cant change your parent but you can change how you are as a parent. I came into adulthood with very little self confidence and perhaps this was a result of my childhood but I believed in myself and eventually found the strength to develop the self-confidence that I didnt have in my teenage and early adult years. The point being that however we have been brought up we can choose how to continue in life. If only perfect parents were granted children, there would be very few humans in the world.

  2. Oh absolutely. I don't blame my mother, she brought me up the best way she could and had her own reasons for not heaping on the praise. I think my point is more that you shouldn't push the baby out with the bath water. Of course you shouldn't praise indiscriminately throughout a child's life, but always picking up where they could do better is equally damaging. And yes you have to take responsibility for yourself as an adult, but it would be disingenuous to claim that how you were brought up had no bearing on how you turned out.

  3. Oh gosh, it's just a minefield, isn't it? I think you have to tiptoe along a middle line.

    I remember one Christmas our oldest wanted to do his own bit of decorating so hung a 6 inch piece of tinsel on the wall with blutack, and we told him it was marvellous. I think that's fine when you have a 2 or 3 year old, but as time goes on, they have to be guided along a little. With an oldest, inevitably, that comes more slowly. If my youngest hung up straggle of tinsel, her sibings would just say what they thought of it and probably take it down, whatever her adoring parents said.

    As a child, I was always praised for effort as well as achievement. I think that is important.

  4. As Iota says, you have to tread a fine line. My mother always praised me and boasted about how wonderful I was, much to my embarrassment. I don't think it made me more confident necessarily. My husband on the other hand had a mother who rarely praised him - I think she subscribed to the Nurtureshock school of thought, if it had been invented in those days. I think somewhere between the two is probably best - praise where praise is due, at least encouragement when it is not?