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Empty Praise


Q6 of Assistive Principles has been noticing a troubling trend among his students--they're expecting praise even when they don't achieve. Using praise to raise self-esteem dulls the use of praise as a reward, says Q6, though there are some instances when a little boosting is alright.

Today I was reminded of why we started praising ordinary things in the first place. One of our students has been getting to school hours late on a regular basis, and today not even the principal and the police officer could get her out of bed to come to school; on the other hand, she lives in a one-room motel room with two parents who drink and party until 2 in the morning, so it's little wonder she's not functional until noon. Another of our students was worried about taking one of his finals this morning, and suggested to his father that he didn't want to go to school today; he arrived at school not long after receiving the beating his father gave him.
We motivate some kids to get to college; we motivate others just to get to tomorrow. Some of these kids get praised for little things because it's all they get a chance to do. Not all of them, and certainly not some of them . . . but a few--a very specific few--deserve the pat on the back for trying.

Who gets to decide the praise that is deserved. Maybe the problem is that we fail to look at the individual child and their specific needs. For example the child that is in the motel may indeed need that extra encouragement and praise in order to get to school. Educators need to assess the needs of their students and give encouragement and praise. Each person is different and thus needs to be treated as such. Perhaps the gentle praise and/or encouragement of one teacher would help this student to move to greater challenges and without that we would have another drop out.

Many educators are unaware of the genesis of the self-esteem philosophy. In the early part of the 20th century, various members of the new socialist political movement Alfred Adler, Erich Fromm and John Dewey authored various theories about learning and personal awareness. From these political ideologies, the self-esteem ideals grew.
By the 1980s, the philosophy had entered the main stream of public education. At the same time, however, a series of studies began to emerge that have cast a dark cloud over the movement.
In 1986, the California Legislature passed a bill creating the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility. After three years, the research was published in a book titled, The Social Importance of Self-Esteem (1989). The conclusion of the study was not favorable. The San Francisco Examiner summed up the report by saying, "Save yourself the 40 bucks the book costs and head straight for the conclusion: There is precious little evidence that self esteem is the cause of our social ills."
Studies by researchers at notable institutions such as Iowa State, Brown, University of Virginia Carnegie Mellon University, San Diego State University and Case Western Reserve University concluded that self-esteem curriculum would produce a personality disorder in some children called narcissism. These children develop an unrealistically optimistic opinion of themselves. When they are rejected or criticized, they see it as an attack on themselves and they respond violently.
However, even after two decades of research, educators are still unaware of the negative effects this philosophy has on their daily management and safe operation of schools. In fact, the father of the modern self-esteem movement Nathaniel Branden has stated, "When your own good opinion matters more to you than someone else's, you have the foundation for self-esteem." Branden's organization provides self-esteem trainers nationwide to educational organizations and schools each year.
Dr. Stephen Wallis (1996) a Maryland school administrator, believes that " ...the notion of self-esteem as a sunny, feel good exercise is undermining real education, self-discipline and achievement. It is largely false and obscures the need for students to work hard, demonstrating perseverance and understanding honesty, responsibility, opportunity, and possibilities to achieve success. Every school should be characterized by the warmth, security, and meaningful work conducive to academic achievement and extracurricular participation."

Thank you for the reminder, Jeff. Part of what motivates me to teach is that we reach so many DIFFERENT children in UNIQUE ways. I am a middle school teacher, and wouldn't trade guiding these students through early adolescence for anything. Not only do these kids' emotional needs vary as they mature, but as you pointed out so well, they come from all "walks of life," many of which we never imagine until we get to know them. Is it not human nature to generalize and assume, to a degree, that everyone else has an upbringing much like our own, or a bit better even? The fact of the matter is that for some of our students, we provide the most safe, consistent, predictable environment. And, if we are aware of the diverstiy of their needs, we can provide a welcoming, somewhat nurturing- or at least validating one as well!

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Recent Comments

  • Eva Kaminski: Thank you for the reminder, Jeff. Part of what motivates read more
  • Dale Yeager: Many educators are unaware of the genesis of the self-esteem read more
  • Amy: Who gets to decide the praise that is deserved. Maybe read more




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