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MIA FREEDMAN ON SUNDAY: "Are we creating a generation of Praise Monsters?"

My parents always thought I was pretty alright. And I realise I’m lucky in this respect. Too many kids don’t have the benefit of having decent parents let alone ones who encourage their curiosity and support their interests. Hell, many kids don’t even have food in the house let alone parents who come to watch their ballet concerts.

It’s widely understood that the most basic tenent of being a good parent is making your child feel loved, valued and safe. I think we can all agree on that as a parenting baseline. What’s new though, is the idea that kids should feel brilliant. Not just brilliant to their parents but brilliant in the world. Really, really brilliant.

Also new, is the obsessive way in which we’ve come to believe that bullet-proof self-esteem is up there with food, water and shelter as being crucial to a child’s well-being.

Let me give you an example. Or three.

  1. Your 7-year-old has their athletics carnival and you are instructed to provide a large safety pin to be worn on their shirt. This is to attach prize ribbons. But my child can’t run all that fast, you think. They might not win any ribbons. YOU ARE SO VERY WRONG. Because prize ribbons are now handed out to kids with wild abandon in a manner similar to Oprah handing out cars. Not just to those who come first, second or third but also fourth, often fifth and frequently to every child who shows up. You manage to cross the finish line? YOU GET A RIBBON. AND YOU GET A RIBBON. EVERYONE GETS A RIBBON. By the end of the carnival, your child will be so heavily weighed down with ribbons pinned to their chest, they will be walking lop-sided.
  2. Your 4-year-old finishes kindergarten. There will be a series of celebratory events to mark this momentous (is it though?) occasion over the final weeks of the year culminating in a ‘graduation’ ceremony in the middle of a work day attended by all parents where the tiny children will wear college-style hats and gowns and receive thoughtful gifts. Speeches will be made. Certificates handed out.
  3. Your 11-year-old completes year 6 at the same school where she will be going on to high school. In the final weeks of term, there are a series of formal and informal events organised by the school and the parents to commemorate this fairly ordinary transition into year 7 despite the fact that 99% of the children will simply be walking 20m across the playground to the senior school. Every child who is leaving to attend a different high school has their own farewell party. Speeches are made. Yearbooks purchased. Certificates received. Gifts are given to everyone, from everyone.

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If you’re in the orbit of a child, you may have noticed: we seem to have become incapable of embarking on any aspect of our children’s lives without enormous fanfare. Rituals can be lovely and important, yes, but I fear we are creating an entire generation of needy humans incapable of doing anything (let alone achieving anything) without a ticker-tape parade and a commemorative tea-towel.

By no means is this a smug or sanctimonious judgement. I am very much complicit in all of this with my own children. But I’m also saying I think it’s a bit nuts.

Back to my parents. I knew they thought I was great but not because they told me so constantly. I just felt secure and loved in ways I can’t really articulate.

But my kids? Yours if you have them? Oh man. They know they are great because they march through their lives to the constant drumbeat of banal praise.

“Good eating!”

“Good playing!”

“Good helping!”

“Good listening!”

“Good sharing!”

“Good chewing!”

“Good drinking!”

“Good reading!”

“Good watching!”

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“Good remembering!”

“Good hand-holding!”

“Good talking!”

Good sitting!”

“Good waiting!”

“Good weeing!”

“Good nose blowing!”

“Good hand-washing!”

Every single one of those exhortations has come out of my mouth since I became a parent. Yes, yes, I know the part where experts say you should encourage good behaviour with positive reinforcment but somewhere along the way we lost our collective minds and became praise volcanos, spewing out incessant compliments to children who now expect them.

"Good smiling!" Image via iStock.

So what's the effect of kids hearing - pretty much from birth -  how great they are at completing basic tasks; the ones that differentiate us from, you know, savages?

What does it mean for the future development of children who are applauded for doing the absolute bare minimum required to function as a sentient being? What does it mean when every milestone they reach, no matter how insignificant, is marked by rapturous celebrations and party food;  when you get a certificate and a ribbon for literally turning up?

Because all that stops when you finish school, doesn't it? There are no participation awards when you miss out on a job. No boss who is going to enthuse, "Good listening!" when you turn up to a meeting or "Good emailing!" when you complete a basic task.

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There is no partner who is going to love you unconditionally and go into raptures about how good you are at every aspect of a relationship. "Good listening," said no adult to another adult ever.

It's at work though, where Generation Praise will come unstuck. They already are.

Because the need for constant positive validation is simply not compatible with being employed. Your boss is not your mother. You don't get a ticker tape parade or a raise or a promotion or more responsibility just for turning up. You get something else: money. And if you do it well, you get to keep your job.

Mia Freedman and Andrew Daddo discuss raising  a generation of kids who need constant praise:

As an employer of many young people (whom I adore and who teach me things every day), I am constantly aware that I am reaping what I sow. The compliment showers I rain down on my children in an unconscious bid to boost their self esteem and therefore make them resilient, is actually doing the opposite. I am accidentally teaching my kids to expect a running commentary of praise just for being in the world. My friend Kate Hunter, who I always look to for parenting wisdom, once wrote a great column for Mamamia about why children don't need an audience for everything.

If every demand of, "Look at me, Mum!" is met with immediate compliance, kids learn that nothing is worth doing unless someone is watching. And it makes the times we do watch, meaningless. We've now taken it a step further and introduced not just an audience but wild applause as a baseline requirement for getting out of bed. A lot has been written about helicopter parents but I've come to realise that this constant hovering creates helicopter children who insist on your near constant presence to validate everything they do.

Imagine being the boss of those kids when they enter the workforce.

So in a bid to lighten the load of my children's future employers, I am trying to dial back the effusiveness with which I cheer my kids through the more basic parts of life. So my child made their own breakfast? Tied their shoelaces? Remembered to put their lunch in their school bag? Fed the dog?

"Good parenting!" I say silently and smugly to myself.

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