Thursday, 30 June 2011

praise monster

I'm like the Cookie Monster on Sesame Street, except I devour praise. Instead of yelling "COOKIES!" I yell "PRAISE! ahm-num-num-num-num-num..."

And just like Cookie Monster, I've got an insatiable appetite.

Watch out chocolate factory!
I'll devour chocolate just as fast as I devour praise.
People (like my kind husband) give me a compliment, and this is how it goes:

"You are good at blah-blah-blah." [gobble, gobble, gobble]

"You are creative." [eat, eat, eat, eat, eat]

"You look nice." [ahm, num, num, num, num, num]

and I'm still not full, looking for more, tearing open cupboard and fridge doors, searching the pantry for something sweet to satisfy my craving.

I'm pretty sure that we all like praise, to a certain degree. And I think it's just common courtesy to compliment someone or encourage another when the opportunity presents itself. That's just what a good friend does, right? We need each other - to lean on, to push each other, to build each other up, to egg each other on.

I like to feel valued for who I am and what I contribute. But this desire for praise is blended with a Caring Too Much About What Others Think dis-ease, and the two mixed together can be a toxic potion. When does praise addiction get to a worrisome level? Martha Beck has devised this quick and handy test to determine whether you're a praise-aholic. Luckily, I tested as "normal" with no real dysfunctions or obsessive behaviours. Phew! I'll have to let my husband know.

It's something I thought about a lot as a teacher, and now as a parent too - how much praise to dole out. What do I praise? How often? Do I praise with stickers or words or both? How do I get my kids to be internally motivated, instead of becoming mini praise junkies addicted to periodic shots of praise?

There are certain things I refuse to praise just because I can be stubborn. Like eating. Why should I praise something that's just part of normal everyday life? "Oh, good job! Good eating! You ate all of your cereal. What a good eater you are! Good for you!" If my kids would eat just to get praise, this could lead to some pretty chubby kids. Yes, I want my kids to eat. But shouldn't the reward of a content tummy be enough?

In Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, they describe a movement in the '80s to ban everything that might lower self-esteem in schools. No competitions. No keeping score. Trophies for everyone. No x's made with red pencils. They talk about a school in Manhattan that even banned jump ropes. They would still skip in gym class, but with no rope. Then kids wouldn't trip.

Their research in this book is FASCINATING. They talk of the impact of self-esteem on grades, career achievement, alcohol usage, aggressive behaviour, and relationship skills, among other things. They write "for college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise causes their grades to sink further." Thankfully, praise can be motivating. But to be effective, researchers found that praise should be specific, sincere, and credible.

I'm not poo-pooing positive reinforcement. But I want to go into each day knowing that my portion will be enough. That even if nobody notices all the crap I picked up all over the house, I will notice, and that will be enough (hopefully?). And what if a day goes by when there are zero comments on something I posted here? I want my portion to be enough. The post where I asked for engagement can look a bit like a plea for praise too. Or a "am I doing anything of any worth here? Please tell me I am!" kind of post. I want to be content and confident in my acts, big and small, online and offline, in and outside of my home, even and especially when they go seemingly unnoticed by others.

On the topic of praise, I'm now wondering why we praise God. Does God really need that, just to know that we think God's doing a good job? Is praising God for our sake, or for God's? (this isn't rhetorical here - I really want to know!) Just like praising my child seems to be for my own sake sometimes - I feel proud, and I praise myself - indirectly.

I think that praise is good, motivating, even necessary. I just want to think about when and where and for what. To give praise that's a bit unexpected, but genuine. Or where the praise confirms something the other person has already expressed. And to consume it in small, manageable amounts instead of pillaging the house for those last little crumbs.

Did you make it all the way to the end of this post? Well, good job! Way to go! Do you know what a good reader you are? So good!


  1. Ha ha - you are so funny Rebecca! I love it! However, when you mentioned the "care what others think" part - that struck a note with me!
    Sometimes I feel like I care too much about what others think! It can be all consuming when I worry about what others may think about my house, yard, car, personal looks etc.! Why should we care? So unimportant some of this stuff!
    -Sharon (BTW - I read everyday) - keep up the good work! :)

  2. Thanks Rebecca! I read the whole thing! And now I hear Erik crying so I need to go. :)

  3. Thanks, Sharon! Good for you, Shauna!

  4. Rebecca -
    Another post that struck a chord!
    I read the book "Nurture Shock" too - and that first chapter talking about the inverse power of praise was a big one for me as a teacher and a mother. (I am only good if people say I'm good....). In another book, Alyson Shaefer talks about the important difference between praise and encouragement. She says that we heap the praise on (even if it is not deserved) and that inherently, praise includes judgement. Praise seems to identify the product, where encouragement emphasises the process, she says. Giving your best is what's honoured, not being the best.
    I am a product of the praise factory too, Rebecca. I feel embarassed to admit this! (so glad you did it first!) It feels better than anything when someone gives a genuine compliment, or notices some small thing that was done.
    Keep writing, Rebecca. I read every post too!

  5. This is really interesting to think about Rebecca. I love it when my husband compliments a meal I've cooked or notices how nice I look, etc, but I relish it, in part, because he doesn't do it very often, almost rarely. It feels so authentic when he does, that I love it all the more.

    Have you ever read the book, 'Punished by Rewards' by Alfie Kohn? It's a fascinating read even if you don't believe it all. I find it particularly interesting in regards to education and the classroom. Or how do you encourage learning when there isn't intrinsic motivation to do so? If you're interested, it may be worth checking out. (

    I'm enjoying your blog Rebecca, thank you!

  6. CeCe: thanks for the book recommendation. I've never heard of it, and it sounds like a good one. And thanks too for the praise :)

  7. I've been hearing more about this issue lately, and its long-term impact on kids -- a whole generations believing that they are special and wonderful and deserve the best. Sounds nice but the realistic consequences are causing problems as they enter the grown-up world, mainly because of the feelings of entitlement so many have!

    I'm struggling with the balance of helping my kids feel they are loved, valued and special without making them feel they deserve to win the prize just for showing up. Thanks for the book recommendations!

  8. Heather: I've heard that universities are seeing the impact of helicopter/hovering parenting styles, and it's not pretty. I too want my kids to feel loved, but not entitled - and like you say about deserving a prize just for showing up.