I haven’t been a great listener to all the advice inflicted on new parents. So-called parenting bibles whose attempts to apply a magical formula to everyday life go against every one of my basic instincts as a mother. My four-year-old daughter has dreamt up her own rule for how many biscuits she is allowed – “Three is piggy, two isn’t” – which I don’t always apply. But my own, very loose, approach is to tell her off when she does something wrong and reward her with praise when she does something well. What’s wrong with that?
A great deal, if the warnings of a joint Dutch-US study published this week are anything to go by. The scientific paper claims that giving children too much praise turns them into narcissists with low self-esteem. Instead of telling our children that they are special, we should say they are as good as anyone else, according to the researchers, who studied 565 Dutch children aged seven to 11, and their parents. It was found that parents who “over-value” their offspring and tell their children they’re special risk them growing up to have an inflated view of themselves. Simply telling a child he or she is loved means they will go on to be confident and well-rounded.
I realise that a scientific study such as this one is more robust than a parenting bible, but both risk applying rigid conclusions to individual children aged four, seven or even 11 – like those in the study – whose potential hasn’t yet been revealed.
My own daughter is in her first year at school and, as a summer-born child, needed a lot of encouragement to keep up with her classmates in reading and writing. At bedtime the other night, she read the word “naughty” correctly in a book, entirely independently. To me, this was an achievement worthy of effusive praise. (I should also praise her excellent teacher for teaching her phonics.)
I don’t use this example to boast about my daughter’s reading skills, but to say I refuse to feel guilty or embarrassed about lavishing praise on her. Does this mean I will cheer every scribble she draws or clap even if she drops a ball when playing catch? No. But I will give her plenty of positive reinforcement and encouragement as she grows up.
I am more determined to do this because she is a girl. There is a widespread assumption that, throughout school, girls become fearful of putting up their hands in class or do not believe they can do subjects like science, maths or technology – and now I have witnessed this tendency in my own daughter. Last week, she was at a sports club and in a group of children where she was the only girl. The coach asked a simple question to which she knew the answer, but I watched as her arm remained by her side while all the boys put up their hands.
Uplifting news: in pictures
Uplifting news: in pictures
1/6 RIP Sidney
Hundreds of strangers turned out for the funeral of a war veteran, after funeral directors made an impassioned appeal for mourners as it was thought that Marshall would have hardly anyone at his service. The request went viral, and when former RAF gunner Sidney Marshall, 90, was laid to rest, the service was attended by more than 200 people. Read more: http://ind.pn/1t8P3gC
2/6 Generous Bedford
Residents of Bedford are the most generous people in the UK when it comes to giving money to charitable causes, according to donations platform JustGiving. Read more: http://ind.pn/1txCNm2
3/6 A long awaited reunion
When four-year-old Raudhatul Jannah was swept from her parents’ grasp by the Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day 2004, they believed she was lost to them forever. Ten years on, a chance sighting has led to them being reunited with their daughter. Read more: http://ind.pn/1lHmjD9
4/6 Sharing good fortune
A homeless man has won £1.7 million after buying a lottery ticket on his way to a meeting for recovering alcoholics, and says he now plans to use the money to help other addicts. Read more: http://ind.pn/1m0awBg
5/6 A precious photo returned
In October 2001, a friend of Elizabeth Stringer Keefe visited Ground Zero in New York, where she found a wedding photo amid the rubble. She tweeted "Every year on #911 I post this photo hoping 2 return 2 owner. Found at #groundzero #WTC in 2001. Pls RT" and after 60,000 retweets, the picture was returned - and all in the photo are alive and well. Read more: http://bit.ly/1vprI7n
6/6 An extraordinary talent
Five-year-old Iris Grace is raising awareness of autism through her extraordinary paintings. She has garnered praise across Europe, Asia and America for her astonishing artwork. Read more: http://ind.pn/1CzV4UU
Arabella Carter-Johnson/Iris Grace
Then there are the times when she has been told by boys her own age that she can’t join in a game because she is a girl. If I don’t tell her now, at four, that there’s nothing she can’t do, or that, say, her kicking a football wide of a goal is nevertheless a good attempt, what will things be like when she’s 14? Can it be she is already stepping back rather than, in the words of Facebook chief Sheryl Sandberg, leaning in? So the more praise I can give her – particularly where she feels less confident – the better equipped she will be for the world.
This is not just about my daughter (that really would be narcissistic) but there is a wider point about society. When I was at a comprehensive school in the 1980s and early 1990s, there was a culture of shying away from talent. Mediocrity ruled, “specialness” was not allowed. Contrast that with the experience of my friend who went to a top girls’ day school at the same time, where the ethos was: “You can be anything you want to be.” I believe this contrast between the state and private sectors is less stark today, but telling children that they are merely as good as everyone else is depressingly anti-aspirational.
There is also something rather British in fighting shy of effusive praise. I prefer the go-getting attitude of the US. After all, they have the world’s largest economy and nearly always head the Olympic medals table. Americans are so renowned for being over the top that three years ago David McCullough, an English teacher, told graduating students in Boston, Massachusetts, that none of them was special. He was fed up with seeing overly praised, cosseted pupils thinking they were better than they really were. But I think we British could do with being a bit more American.
The answer must be not to lump every child into a mass of mediocrity but to tease out each individual’s special abilities and talents. No child should be left behind, of course, but nor should they be held back from aiming high in case it risks turning them into arrogant adults. I am not ashamed to say it, but I am a pushy parent.Reuse content