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Problematic Praise

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Praise and rewards have become a staple in the traditional classroom. Did you get an A on your test? Then you get a candy bar. If you read 15 books over the next 6 weeks then you get a pizza party. Get caught doing something good and you'll get a star on your chart. The barrage of behavior incentives don't stop in the classroom either. As parents, we brag, we praise endlessly and sometimes we even offer tangible rewards as well.

But what’s the harm? Clearly these tactics to modify behavior get a return. Once you find the external factor that influences a child, it can get incredible results.

Maria Montessori took a strong stand against rewards and meaningless praise and for good reason.  This approach teaches children to be extrinsically motivated and increasingly rely on external factors to drive them.

We want our children to become lifelong learners; to love reading. But earning prizes for these tasks creates the opposite effect. Why read for the love of it when you can read to get a day at a theme park? Why learn for the sake of curiosity when you can hear your parents gush about how smart you are? It’s a slippery slope - one I became all too accustomed to myself as I desperately sought the approval of any adult in a 50 mile radius.

If you still need more proof, let’s look at Generation Y, otherwise known as the “Me” generation. Arguably, this is the self-esteem generation. They were raised at the height of the praise and reward movement. The result? A generation that is labeled narcissistic and deemed difficult to motivate by employers. Sadly, we don’t ask ourselves what we did wrong. Instead, we try to find various external factors to blame. I would argue that we’ve created a generation that is still looking for their gold star. They simply don’t know how to find internal satisfaction because we’ve conditioned them otherwise.

What we really want our children to develop is intrinsic motivation. This can only occur in the paradigm that Montessori envisioned - one devoid of rewards and meaningless praise. In those instances, children learn to find internal satisfaction for their efforts. They read for the sake of reading. They treat others kindly because it’s what one should do. No longer is their joy robbed as they seek external approval. Intrinsic motivation transcends all stages of life. When they enter the adult life, they can be satisfied with a job well done.

While this all sounds great, I realize that the reality of removing meaningless praise and rewards is very difficult. Stay tuned, and next week I’ll give you some tips for implementing this in your home.


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