Unconditional Love Not Unconditional Praise

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Regular readers of this column know that there are fewer bigger believers than I in the power of warmth and positive reinforcement to help our children realize their full potential. That does not mean, however, that constant praise is the way to do so. Last week, we discussed why all praise is not equal – i.e., praising children for effort yields very different results from praising them for their native intelligence. This week we will discuss the dangers of too much praise. (Again we are drawing on the research summarized in a February 19 New York Magazine article entitled “How Not to Talk to Your Kids.”)

The publication of Nathaniel Braden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem in 1969 ushered in the self-esteem movement in the United States. Self-esteem was proclaimed the key to every aspect of life. The precepts of the movement dovetailed nicely with the needs of parents with increasingly little time to spend with their children. Parents convinced themselves that they could compensate for their absence with heavy doses of generalized praise of the “you’re the greatest” variety.

Recent studies, however – some by early enthusiasts of the self-esteem movement – have found that high self-esteem bears little relation to concrete achievement. In one comparative international study of math achievement, for instance, children in the United States ranked near the very bottom. Yet when asked to assess their own mathematical abilities, American children gave themselves the highest marks of any nation. (And this was at a time when only one in a thousand American students would have ranked in the top ten percent of Japanese students their age.)

Not only is there little reason to believe that constant efforts to build children’s self-esteem boosts either their short-term achievements or their chances for long-term success in life, there is evidence that endlessly telling them “You’re special,” can be damaging. Since 1982, a team of psychologists has been evaluating American college students according to something called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. And they have charted a steady and dramatic increase in narcissism among those tested. That trend, they worry, could lead, among other things, to even greater marital instability, since narcissists have difficulty creating and maintaining close personal relationships.

When it comes to praise, it turns out that there can be too much of a good thing. For one thing, children can develop something like an addiction to praise and become unable to function without it. That can be a big problem later in life when one has to deal with employers and others who are less concerned with building one’s self-image and more concerned with output.

Even during childhood and the teenage years, too much praise can come at a high-cost in personal autonomy and persistence. Children who are praised constantly for instance, do more eye-checking with the teacher to assess the teacher’s reaction, and even when answering a question do so with the inflection of one asking a question, as if to elicit hints from the teacher whether what they are saying is right.

Among the most important qualities that we can imbue our children with is the ability to respond to setbacks and frustration with renewed effort and not by giving up. Based on monitoring electrical activity in the brain, scientists have been able to identify a specific area of the brain that governs the ability to maintain motivation over the long-run. The brain’s reward center releases certain chemicals upon successful completion of a task. Another area of the brain monitors the neural reward center and sends a message to the rest of the brain when no reward is immediately forthcoming to keep plugging away because there will be a reward down the line.

But people show a very great difference in the number of such messages sent. In some people, the switch activated when reward is not immediately forthcoming is constantly lighting up; in others it is almost totally dormant. What explains the difference? Brain scientists speculate that too frequent rewards or praise can prevent the switch mechanism from developing properly, and thus the beneficiaries of too much praise will fail to develop the mechanisms that facilitate persistence.

A fair amount of lo lishma is a crucial incentive at the outset of Gemara learning, for instance, but if a student never learns to love the learning for its own sake, he will have a hard time devoting himself to that learning when it does not go easily for him.

Another reason that praise can be overdone is that all but the very youngest children tend to be suspicious of it. Praise has been shown to be a powerful motivator. But only when it is specific and based on real concrete accomplishments. But when it is too general or excessive, children tend to discount it, and often to draw the very opposite conclusions than the one offering the praise hopes to convey. When praise is out of all proportion to real achievement, the recipients are not fooled. Indeed they often assume that the one proffering the praise must think they have reached the limits of their ability and is trying to console them.

In that context, they often perceive criticism as a greater affirmation of their unrealized potential than exaggerated praise. And in that they may well be right, at least if the experience of Lithuanian yeshivos is any indication. While my rosh yeshiva could be very sharp in responding to a poorly formulated s’vora, I never once saw him respond that way to a weaker student.

I once spoke to an alte Mirrer, who told me that it is a big mistake to think that the bochurim in pre-War Europe were bigger ba’alei kishron than today. Just the opposite: He sees bigger ba’alei kishron today. The difference lies rather in the determination they developed in former days.

The great Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva Rav Nachum Partzovitz once responded to a student who complained that a particular distinction was “difficult to hear:” “Sometimes Mr. P. you must also learn to hear a shvere (difficult) s’vora.”

The determination to plumb the depths of the Gemara in order to understand a fine distinction was what set apart the finest products of the pre-War yeshivos. And that determination we can be sure did not come from sitting around telling each other how smart they were or hearing it from their rabbonim.

Appeared in Mishpacha Magazine.

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11 Responses

  1. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    “I for one am not going to play with fire and “tough love” my children, regardless of what the annual college kid interviews are saying.”

    Neither am I into tough love, and it is clear that few kids today are built for it. But there are plenty of ways to convey to love without piling on unearned praise. For starters, hugs and kisses. Even my 14-year-old still loves to get a big hug and kiss from both parents before heading off for yeshiva in the morning. And an alert parent can always find something to praise, and no matter how small the occasion for that praise, it will be more meaningful than that which is slathered on to salve parents’ guilt for having no real involvement in their childrens’ lives. In short, I’m all for warmth, talking to your kids, praise, encouragement, family trips in the summer, etc. But with praise, like most good things in life, there can be too much of a good thing, and there is definitely a right and wrong way to give it.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    “Not by might and not by power,,,”

  3. dovid says:

    “let’s see what happens when he fights Joe Frazier”

    I am afraid JB stands no chance even against Jewish Observer.

  4. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “self-esteem needs to be connected to action. when it is disconnected from what we do, the result is an amorphous sense of grandiosity or narcissism…”

    I have wondered if self-esteem is inherent or connected to action. In Judaism, the most famous source that is given is “beloved is man, for he was created in the image of G-d”. This points to an inherent source of worthiness which people can internalize. Yet, it can be more difficult for people who do not accomplish in ways that society recognizes to maintain self-esteem, such as those with a disability, someone unemployed, or elderly people. So we see that self-esteem and happiness are partially connected to action and accomplishment as well.

    I think that both are true; self-esteem is partially related to action and the outer world, but it is dependent upon how one internally experiences life, sort of like “who is rich, he who is happy with his portion”.

    One quote from one of Branden’s later books is “self-esteem, then, is a function, not of what we are born with, but how we use our consciousness–the chices we make concerning awareness…” One changes his or her inner world not only directly(eg, awareness and meditation), but by effectively making use of one’s inner world through action and interfacing with the outer environment, what ever givens the latter is.

  5. ursula schwartz says:

    self-esteem needs to be connected to action. when it is disconnected from what we do, the result is an amorphous sense of grandiosity or narcissism, which is really not very helpful. when a sense of esteeming one self is connected with what we do, the the possiblity opens for us to create a sense of self-esteem, to look at less then glorious moments not with denial or any other form of justification but rather as an opportunity for self improvement. i think, that praise that is unrealistic, disproportionate, or too global is at best confusing to a child. ursula

  6. Jewish Observer says:

    “Jonathan Rosenblum is the greatest”

    – let’s see what happens when he fights Joe Frazier

  7. Joe Fisher says:

    I for one am not going to play with fire and “tough love” my children, regardless of what the annual college kid interviews are saying.

  8. David says:

    Jonathan Rosenblum is the greatest.

  9. Jewish Observer says:

    ” Finally, some ‘common sense’ ”

    – the post about not making life decisions based on blogs is also common sense

  10. Mordechai says:

    Wow, I am very happy to see this. Finally, some ‘common sense’ !

    In recent years, there has been a deluge of lectures and emphasis on self-esteem as cure-all in the frum community, presumably due to the influences mentioned here As usual though, the frum got into it long after the others.

    Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski and others have been stressing and praising it to the sky (I think there is even a book ‘Twerski on self-esteem).

    I have been suspicious of this extreme ideology andd warned against it, but have been ignored, or worse, and seen as being old-fashioned and out of touch.

    It’s so nice to be vinidicated finally !

    The question is – will the frum self-esteem industry change course now, or will they keep on promoting it extremely as before, perhaps only shifting course after a few years, in line with the standard lag of a few years until ‘new wisdom’ penetrates the ‘frum’ community ?

  11. Micha Berger says:

    FWIW, R’ Shlomo Wolbe and lbchl”ch R’ Abraham Twersky are strong supporters of building self-image. Rabbi Twersky associates ga’avah (egotism) with poor self esteem. Someone with healthy self esteem doesn’t need mechanisms to support himself. The braggart and the person who judges others poorly are motivated by a need to prove themselves worthy, at least by comparison.

    And the entire Slabodka branch of Mussar is built upon gadlus ha’adam (the greatness of man). Look how many of the leaders of the past two generations were only great because the Alter of Slabodka managed to show them their gifts, and taught them to aim high, to live up to those gifts.

    -mi