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Guest editorial

When praise becomes a curse

By Dr Augustine Panchoo, licensed clinical psychologist

The dictionary describes praise as an act of expressing approval or admiration. It can be said, we all need positive feedback. Some more than others, but to receive commendation, laudation or approval for a trait or an act or behavior is one way of saying “you did well”. It is well documented that praise can engender feelings of accomplishment and superiority. Praise can also motivate one to become better at what they do or at least strive to become more efficient. There is no question about the positive benefits and possible outcomes of positive praise. Brain studies indicate that we respond to social approval in much the same way that we respond to monetary rewards. Praise feels good. And certain types of praise can lead to helpful outcomes.

What are the effects of praise one may ask? It depends. Praise can boost good feelings and increase motivation. It can inspire children to be more cooperative, persistent, and hard-working. Praise can promote competition and thereby increasing productivity. Praise can build self-esteem and boost ego strength. Praise can give you a new perspective on life and transform you from an ordinary to an extraordinary person. But praise, while well intentioned, is not always the most effective way to increase motivation or is it an effective way to reinforce good behavior. In fact, praise can set up a relationship of dependency, trigger our inner critics, and miss opportunities for growth. There are several traditional cultures around the world where parents avoid praise. They worry that too much praise would inflate the ego. Make children overconfident. Too full of themselves and dependent on external forces to achieve.

So, how can praise become a curse? Let me give you some examples of what this editorial is pointing to. One, a child comes home with an average grade and as a parent you say, “Great effort” so as to not hurt his or her feelings but you know that your child can do way better than average. After all, his or her only responsibility is to study. He or she does not have to do household chores and worry about the basic necessities of life. He or she is well provided for. You are convinced that his or her performance was a product of laissez-faire application and poor judgement. However, you want to spare his/her feelings by still finding ways to give “praise”. Is your praise really praise or is it a curse? Another example is the child who really does poorly at sports, dancing or another form of activity but the parent insists on pressuring him or her to keep trying by heaping on an inordinate measure of praises. In cases like these, praises can destroy confidence and illicit feelings of inadequacy, anger and frustration. Children often know their ability and aptitude and can feel when an activity does not fit into who they are or want to be. In cases like these praise does become a curse.

Praise becomes a curse when a person puts on weight, or loses weight, change the color of their hair or puts on extensions or braids and our response is, “oh my god, you look awesome”. What statements like these are actually doing is establishing a barometer for awesome, sexy, fabulous, terrific, absolutely gorgeous and the plethora of colorful adjectives we utter. The person receiving these compliments and praises is now cornered into thinking that he or she is not all that awesome and terrific but rather the things added is what make them all that and a bag of chips. Can we therefore see how praise can box people into a certain kind of behavior because after all, praise is often very flattering and can even become addicting? To find and maintain significance through the praise of others is not praise but a curse.

I am unaware of any convincing evidence that criticism or negative feedback necessarily causes any harm to children’s self-esteem. Of course, abusive comments and personal insults may well do so, but these are obviously inappropriate and unacceptable behaviours. Well-chosen criticism, delivered in an environment of high expectations and unconditional support, can inspire learning and development, whilst poorly judged praise can do more harm than good. Even relatively young children can tell the difference between constructive and destructive criticism, and it is a serious and unhelpful error to conflate the two.

Praise does not always bring about a positive feeling from the recipient. It can be viewed as a standard of evaluation from which one must measure future actions as well as a method of manipulating—and being manipulated by—other people. Praise should be made selective.

In conclusion, I believe that both praise and positive criticism have their rightful place in the building of character, and teaching valuable life skills. However, I would be more concerned with being honest, supportive, accepting and realistic than being a conduit of affirmation and glorification that are not praise but curse.

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