Before I have my own kids, I remember promising myself not to be like my dad. I was convinced that I must praise my kids often and not to deprive them of such opportunities to boost their self-esteem. I shall be one of those positive and super-encouraging parent. Nothing less.
In the first year or so of being a parent, I uttered a lot of 'wow... well done, baby!'. For the every flip, crawl, step and whatever baby-size achievements my kids produced, there was a staggering amount of exaggerated happiness and heaps of praises.
But over the years, I become more convinced of the great perils of overpraising and its relationship with underachievement.
To begin with, I do have high expectations of my boys and my students in general. Yes, every child has his own pace of learning and I certainly don't expect everyone to be a high achiever. But I do passionately believe that with the right guidance and opportunities, we can help every child unleash his potential.
In almost all the cases that I've encountered of kids with normal learning abilities who are underachieving, a common root cause (gathered from my observations, interactions with the kids and parents) seems to be overpraising. These kids are so used to an environment where overpraising is the norm that they have come to expect it as an entitlement and reward.
When we use praise as a means of encouragement, we must use it very cautiously.
Frequent and often undeserved rewards in the form of praise, deprive a child of motivation and discourage persistence.
It is counter-effective if a child sees praise as a reward to solicit from parents, caregivers and teachers. In fact, it can easily lead to discouragement when the child faces difficulties. Imagine one who needs to be praised at every baby step before she will even try to tackle a challenge.
Some parents think lavishing praises is equivalent to encouraging the child. But in reality, this creates in the child, a dependence on praises for him to feel good about himself and his abilities.
Kids who are overpraised also tend to shy away from activities where their success is less guaranteed (e.g. new activities) and are more worried of failing or losing.
I would rather commend a child for her effort, positive attitude and persistence in tackling a challenge by herself. She is more likely to challenge herself further at the next task and will perform better.
Since I am my kids' main caregiver and I'm the one who coaches them on most things outside their schooling hours, my conscious effort of praising only when praises are due should make significant difference to their learning attitudes.
Results with my students would vary more and this is to be expected. Those whose parents have come to understand the perils of overpraising and learnt to change the ways they encourage and influence their kids tend to see amazing results in their kids' progress in short time. As for the few who persist in their beliefs that their kids just need more encouragement and that I am not praising/encouraging them enough tend to continue to see their kids underperforming.
Within my extended family, there are two mums who tend to overpraise. Not just to their own kids, but mine too.
MumA will utter 'wah, clever boy!' to every little thing that my boys or her kids do, from being able to recognize a simple 3-letter word, putting on their shoes themselves to completing a craft....
MumB is also super quick at praising my boys for every little display of achievements. When M came home with some test results one day, she remarked 'wow, you are such a clever boy! I can see you pass your test!' She did it again when he came home with full score for his weekly spelling, telling him 'I'm so impressed with your ability to spell! Clever boy!'
In both cases, I rolled my eyes. Ok, he scored 92/100 for the test which is great, but to praise him for passing his test is really setting the benchmark too low. In fact, I would be livid if he were to just pass his test! When the tests are really simple and/or there are careless mistakes which M has been repeatedly reminded to avoid, I would be careful about lavishing praises without discussing his mistakes, which is exactly what this mum tends to do ('oh don't dent the happiness or discourage him by pointing out his careless mistakes, I am sure he will learn them himself', as she puts it).
I expect him to do well for his weekly spelling. To me, it is his responsibility to ensure that he learns his words, just like how I expect him to complete his homework and brush his teeth. And when he exhibits a sense of responsibility to carry out his 'duties' with appropriate effort and attention, I don't hesitate to praise him for that.
I know both mums praise out of good intentions but luckily they are not permanent residents in my home.