E Jane Dickson: Praise where praise is due, not where expected

I almost wept with relief when my son came home with a ‘could do better’

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They tuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean it, but according to a controversial new publication, the warm and fuzzy approach to parenting is doing more harm than good.

American authors Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson have sparked fierce debate in child psychology circles with their book NurtureShock, which suggests, among other things, that too much "positive reinforcement" can stunt a child's development.

The theory flies in the face of established parenting principles and the comfortable notion that if you praise your child often enough and lavishly enough, the child will raise its game accordingly. Citing new research data from Stanford University, Merryman and Bronson argue a sternly empirical case: children who are routinely over-rewarded with praise make less effort and are less self-motivated than those who have to work for parental approval. There's a cool, goal-oriented logic here that I can more easily apply to lab rats than to children. I instinctively cleave to the idea that telling your children they're marvellous is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I can see the case for checks and balance. (I have been to dinner parties where a prodigiously filled potty has solicited universal admiration.)

My personal caveat to the overpraising business would be that it is essentially a private matter: you know and your child knows that he/she is a spectacular human being, but as far as the rest of the world goes, approval is something to be earned.

Somewhere along the line from Dr Spock to Supernanny, unconditional approval has been confused with unconditional love And our confusion in this matter is doing our children no favours. As parents, we fear above all things damaging our child's "self-worth" and we forget, perhaps, that "self-worth" is a relative concept. We are all familiar with the tyranny of the "sensitive" child who is allowed to run roughshod over the feelings of others. Yet the idea that such behaviour is reprehensible is greeted with something akin to outrage.

When it comes to education, I fear we're approaching a "negative equity" situation with unearned approval. The cessation of anti-social behaviour in classrooms is now routinely greeted with praise and, sometimes, with tangible rewards. While I can see the value in incentivising good behaviour, I'm not sure "thank you for not smacking the teacher" is an appropriate response. Similarly, the evaluation of academic progress has become a regulated process of ultimately meaningless praise. The red pen has all but disappeared from the teacher's armoury as any kind of negative comment is held to be demoralising to pupils. I almost wept with relief when my son came home recently with "could do better" written firmly on his exercise book. I wholeheartedly agree that he can and should do a great deal better and was becoming frustrated by the faint praise that was supposed to spur him to greater achievement.

On a wider scale, the "all must have prizes" mentality is all too apparent in the phenomenon of grade inflation. I feel sorry for students who I don't doubt have worked their socks off to achieve their string of A stars at A-level, only to find that when it comes to getting into a decent university, they aren't worth a toot. It's not the kids' fault the exams got easier; it's the fault of an educational establishment determined to prove an upward trend.

The real pity of this cycle of unearned achievement is that the currency of individual academic prowess has become cruelly debased. With no useful differentiation in A-level grades, students must impress university admissions boards with supplementary learning; this tilts the playing field ever further from state school applicants and makes a nonsense of the watered-down National Curriculum that was supposed to ensure wider access to further education

It doesn't stop there. As the recession bites, graduates are advised that if they want to make themselves attractive to potential employers they need a postgraduate qualification. The Government's funding for postgraduate courses is even less generous than it is for undergraduates, but there is no shortage of postgraduate places for those who can self-fund. Already at some of our best universities, it is considerably easier to land a self-funding place on a postgraduate course – once the preserve of the most academically able – than it is to gain admittance for a first degree. And just when you think the system couldn't get any more nakedly commercial, proposals submitted this week by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills suggest that students could be charged as much as £20,000 for degrees in oversubscribed subjects such as medicine, dentistry and law.

"Prizes for all?" I don't think so. For the want of an equable measure of achievement and a willingness to recognise achievement only when it is due, we find ourselves speeding back to the future with professions reserved for "the professional classes". I'm damned if I can see anything to praise in that.

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