Why Johnny can't cope as an adult


August 28, 2005|By Nick C. Sortal | Nick C. Sortal,South Florida Sun-Sentinel

The praise starts at infancy -- nice burp, Johnny! -- and swells during early childhood. After all, you gotta pump up their self-esteem. The fawning surges during elementary school -- wonderful essay, Lakeisha! -- and continues through high school and college.

We throw graduation parties and buy our children new cars because they made it through.

Then comes that first job, and their world collapses. They can't handle the criticism.

And we wonder why.

Some psychologists and authors are backtracking on their earlier directives to praise, praise, praise. They say overpraising creates overinflated egos, not positive self-esteem. It also overly protects children from experiencing conflict and failure. Something to think about as another school year begins.

Among those making a U-turn is Florida State University psychology professor Roy Baumeister, who for 30 years attempted to document the value of positive self-esteem, only to experience "one of the biggest disappointments of my career."

The praise pendulum has swung from one extreme to another, he says.

"Parents used to worry about spoiling their kids, and so they criticized lavishly and withheld praise," he says. "Now they worry about self-esteem, so they withhold criticism while praising lavishly."

Baumeister now advocates a balance of praise and criticism. The heart of his turnaround came as he studied how survey data was collected: Because the information was self-reported, those with higher self-esteem naturally overreported their successes; the negative subjects exaggerated their failures.

Self-esteem's role has long been overrated, says child psychologist David Anderegg, author of the parenting book Worried All the Time (Free Press, $24).

"Research on its importance is incredibly weak and always has been incredibly weak," he says. A Scien-tific American report this year and other publications agree with him.

However, there's hope for those adults who pump out too much praise, experts say. You can be helped. You can still encourage your children and prepare them for the days when not everyone gets a trophy.

The praise that especially gets a bad name is the empty kind, the "good job" parents give after a B-minus essay or a half-made bed. The kids sniff out that air of patronization, and the adults' credibility is shot.

"If they always say, 'Good job,' you never know if it's true," says Aileen Alonso, 10, taking a break from a tennis lesson in Pembroke Pines, Fla.

An overemphasis on building self-esteem is a very American thing, author Joel Turtel says. He cites a study comparing Americans and Koreans: The Americans' self-esteem was higher, but the Koreans' math scores were higher.

"Overpraising gives children a false view of reality," says Turtel, who argues in his new book, Public Schools, Public Menace (Liberty Books, $17.95), that the public-school system is partially responsible.

"The parents try to make that everything's OK, but the real world and the college admission office say, 'Wait a second.' When [kids] finally hit reality, they're at a disadvantage."

The Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Current wisdom says parents need to balance praise and criticism

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