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.