When too much praise isn’t good


Belfast - “Do you like it?” asks my seven-year-old. “What is it?” “It’s a pineapple,” says the budding Cézanne.

“Then why is it orange?” I reply. He looks up from his drawing of a fruit bowl with a crestfallen expression.

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My children frequently come back with silver stickers on their primary-school uniforms.

I am, once again, pricked by guilt at my poor parenting. I know I am meant to compliment him, but I can’t bring myself to do so when his felt-tip-on-A4 effort lacks perspective, scale or any skill.

His flurry of tries at the weekend’s tag-rugby match were warmly applauded. But to praise him for a dismal drawing seems perverse.

I refuse to do so – even if it causes a sulk.

But I am fighting a losing battle. A recent report provides more ammunition to those who would wreathe the world in a garland of compliments.

A team of Japanese researchers at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences has discovered that the more a person is complimented, the more the striatum part of their brain is stimulated and the better they perform a task.

“Compliments are as good as cash at making us work harder,” ran the headline.

I am not convinced. There is something fundamentally flawed about the conclusion.

Professor Norihiro Sadato, who tested a total of 48 people, says: “There seems to be scientific validity behind the message ‘praise to encourage improvement’. Complimenting someone could become an easy and effective strategy to use in the classroom.’’

That is precisely the problem. Paying a compliment is easy. And we have done it all too often in the name of building self-esteem in children.

My children frequently come back with silver stickers on their primary-school uniforms.

When I ask what they got them for – hoping to hear a stirring tale – I hear the inevitable: “Oh, everyone in our class got one.”

This is in sharp contrast to the school I attended. The headmaster was an old-fashioned, eagle-headed figure who equated the wearing of suede shoes with drug-taking. However, he had charm and manners in spades and would dash off carefully constructed gushes of praise to his pupils.

They were incredibly rare. You were lucky to receive one a year and they were only sent after some heroic act on the playing field or in the classroom.

It was the rarity that made them so valuable. Now, people expect to be complimented on a daily basis.

One of my most awkward meals was at a disappointing French restaurant when the chef, with Napoleonic self-regard, toured the tables scouting for compliments at the end of the meal. I tried to slink down in my seat in the hope he would bypass us.

Like a potty-training baby, he wanted to be applauded for doing his job. I mumbled that the meal was nice. “But what did you like about it?” he pushed.

I don’t like to offer compliments left and right, especially when they are sought out by a needy supplicant.

Dr Jean Twenge, the psychologist and author of Narcissism Epidemic, points out that this culture of compliments “puts the cart before the horse”.

Surely, when we work hard we develop high self-esteem, and then the compliments come – not the other way around?

And when it comes to persuading me to stay late in the office, it is no contest whether a compliment, or a pay rise, is likely to work.

My editor knows where to find my bank account details. – Irish Independent

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