Damned by too much

Have parents and teachers turned a generation of youngsters into approval junkies, asks Stephen Briers

The old Irish proverb, "Praise youth and it will prosper", has certainly been taken to heart by parents and teachers. The belief that a diet of fulsome praise is pivotal to the growth of robust self-esteem is widely taken for granted. However, is the way we encourage children breeding a generation of approval junkies reliant on our affirmation?

One writer who fears this might be so is Alfie Kohn. The former teacher argues that when encouraged to work for rewards (including praise and approval), children become focused on the pay-off and lose the capacity to derive intrinsic satisfaction from learning.

There is some worrying research evidence to support his view. For example, young children rewarded for drawing become less likely to continue doing it spontaneously for their pleasure. Even apparent gains in self-esteem mediated through the reinforcement of praise may prove illusory and unstable.

Psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden differentiates between authentic self-esteem, derived from an internal process of reflexive self-appraisal, and pseudo self-esteem, reliant on external frames of reference. Whereas the first confers resilience, the latter is a liability. By cultivating too great an appetite for praise, we may unwittingly be cutting children off from reliable and enduring sources of self-worth.

So how can teachers promote the growth of authentic self-esteem in their pupils? A basic prerequisite is a supportive classroom culture in which the pressure of comparison is kept to a minimum. Allowing children to believe their self-worth is contingent on performing as well as or better than their peers will inevitably keep them preoccupied with the judgments of others.

Promote autonomy, a hallmark of true self-esteem, by helping children negotiate their own learning objectives and review their progress.

David Hemery, Olympic 400m hurdles champion and coach, highlights the value of skilful questioning in facilitating self-appraisal, a process he believes can be more encouraging than ladling out praise because it allows the learner to be more self-motivated.

Children need accurate feedback so they can make realistic appraisals of progress towards their goals. If we tell children that everything they do is marvellous, regardless of its quality, we risk disempowering them by withholding the information they need to refine their abilities.

Give children specific descriptions of what they have achieved in terms that highlight the skills being developed. Celebrate their successes with them but keep emphasising the intrinsic satisfactions of learning rather than the importance of good grades.

Finally, lead the way by communicating the personal pleasure, fascination and satisfaction you derive from your subject.

Become a genuinely inspirational teacher by modelling an approach to life and learning that, if taken on board, will help your pupils find authentic pathways to really feel good about themselves Stephen Briers is a clinical psychologist


* Alfie Kohn (2000) The Schools Our Children Deserve. Mariner Books.

* David Hemery (2005) How to Help Children Find the Champion Within Themselves. BBC ActivePrentice Hall.

* Nathaniel Branden (1995) The Six Pillars of Self-esteem. Bantam

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