Nine year old Kiana wanted to show me and her parents something she had created at school. It’s called a Prezi—something like a powerpoint, but a heck of a lot cooler. The online presentation software helps build visual displays for explaining a concept or for telling a story. Kiana had uploaded a voiceover.
It doesn’t matter whether the first Prezi you see is good, bad or downright awful. Odds are, the technology will impress you. If your kids created one, you might heap all kinds of praise on them for a job well done. But that’s not what Kiana’s mother, Annika, did. “You have some good images Kiana,” she said, “but your voice lacks volume. Do you remember what we talked about? The importance of a strong voice?”
At first, I thought Annika was being pretty tough. I asked her about it later. “Nowadays, well-meaning parents praise kids for anything and everything,” she said. “Praise should only be given when it’s really deserved. And for a child to really grow, praise and criticism should be specific.”
Annika has two kids. She also teaches Physical Education to elementary school children at Singapore American School. But she’s no Amy Chua. The bestselling author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Chua criticises the softness of American parents, praising her Chinese-American upbringing. She says that her parents “demanded total respect and were very tough with my three younger sisters and me. We got in trouble for A minuses.”
My parents would have borrowed money to host a street party if I had brought home a report card filled with A minuses. Chua sounds harsh. But she could also be on to something.
Researchers at Ohio State University say that narcissism is higher in Western countries than in non-Western countries. And narcissism is rising because we give kids too much praise. One of the researchers, Eddie Brummelman told Forbes writer, Alice G. Walton, “Narcissistic children feel superior to others, believe they are entitled to privileges, and crave for constant admiration from others. Subgroups of narcissists, especially those with low self-esteem, are at increased risk to develop anxiety and depression.”
This depression is something that psychotherapist, Lori Gottlieb wrote about in The Atlantic. When she first started practicing, most of her patients that suffered from depression came from difficult upbringings. But over time, she and her fellow psychotherapists noticed a shift. “Instead, these patients talked about how much they ‘adored’ their parents. Many called their parents their ‘best friends in the whole world,’ and they’d say things like ‘My parents are always there for me.’”
Gottlieb spoke with Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA. He says parents often bend backward to ensure that their kids avoid “anything less than pleasant.” He adds that if kids can’t handle frustrations on their own, they think there’s something wrong with them.
Not experiencing failure or criticism, in fact, can impact even the most gifted kids. Geoff Colvin, the bestselling author of Talent Is Overrated says constant practice and specific feedback make people successful. When kids don’t face adversity, they have a tough time overcoming life’s challenges as adults. Colvin quotes Josh Waitzkin, the child prodigy chess player featured in the movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer. “The most gifted kids in chess fall apart. They are told that they are winners, and when they inevitably run into a wall, they get stuck and think they must be losers.”
Sasha Emmons, in Parents Raising Readers and Learners described a Columbia University study where scientists wanted to see how praise affects kids. They gave children a series of puzzles to solve. The first puzzle was easy. When it was done, the researchers told some of the kids that they were smart. They praised others for working hard.
Researchers then gave the kids a choice. They could do another simple puzzle. Or they could try a tough one. Most of the kids who were told that they were smart selected the easier puzzle. But the kids who were praised for working hard chose the tougher puzzle.
The researchers found that praising kids for their effort makes them more resilient. In contrast, giving the “smart” label to other kids reduce their willingness to take risks.
Raising kids and teaching them has never been easy. But we have to be careful about pendulum swings. Perhaps parents in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, didn’t give the kind of gushing praise and support that kids receive today. Tougher love, however, could have made us stronger.
Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller, Millionaire Teacher and The Global Expatriate's Guide to Investing: From Millionaire Teacher to Millionaire Expat.