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Praise for nothing means nothing

My six-year-old granddaughter plays soccer in a league where the coaches and parents refuse to keep score, because they want the children to "feel good about them- selves and their performance." One afternoon my husband made the mistake of cheering on Corinne's team as it made a goal. Within earshot of our granddaughter, the coach took him aside and said, "Remember, we don't keep score," to which Corinne replied, "It's 6 to 2 and the Lemon Drops are ahead!"

In this era of hovering "helicopter" parents, who feel it is their highest calling to boost their child's self-esteem, a call for adults
to make honest appraisals of children's' efforts may sound like heresy. Parents, teachers, and coaches, who continually praise children, do so with the best of intentions. Many of them grew up in an educational atmosphere of harsh criticism and competition
that killed not only creative expression but a child's spirit. The psychologist Michael Thompson in his book The Pressured Child, writes "... we can't bear to see our children suffer. If we had it in our power to protect them from disappointments, the unhappiness, or the true misery we experienced as children or saw around us, we would do so."

Yet exclamations such as "Great effort - everybody wins in this game!" or "You are the best child in the world!" delude only adults, not children. 

The wisdom of youth

Many years ago I had a student, Rita, who inadvertently questioned the wisdom of one of my deeply ingrained teaching techniques. After hearing a particularly bad performance of the week's new piece, I began with my usual mode of "positive comments first." All I could think to praise was Rita's effort to keep her heel on the floor while she pedaled. With utmost respect but obvious impatience, she said, "Oh, Mrs. Kreader, skip the praise. That performance was a mess. Just help me fix it." In that moment Rita taught me that praise for nothing means nothing.

Outside praise has an inferred expectation and puts pressure on a child. For example, no child can be the best child in the world every minute. It reminds me of the comedian George Carlin's dis- like of the salutation: "Have a nice day." He noted: 

What if I am having a crummy day?

Do I have to make myself feel worse by knowing I am not having a 'nice day?' Do I have to make the effort to make all my days 'nice?

What if I can't do it?

As we know, true learning means that some of the time we sound awful and feel frustrated - even "crummy" can take a lot of effort.

If "everybody wins," why are we playing the game in the first place? Is everyone's performance of Filr Elise equally good because they made a "great effort?" Doesn't the music itself have the right to be played as Beethoven would have wanted Elise to hear it?

A friend of mine, who is a now-retired professor of education at a large Midwest university, remembers the day one of his students came to him complaining of her "B" grade. "I attended every class," she told him, "and I handed in all of my assignments on time. Why did I get a B and not an A?"

"Because you did B-Ievel work," he replied. She didn't get it.

The effort generation?

A recent series of letters in the February 23, 2009 editorial section of The New York Times, titled " W Is for Achievement, 'E' is for Effort" suggested that this feeling of entitlement to an A is widespread among today's college students. Alfred Posamentier, Dean of the School of Education at City College of New York, CUNY wrote, "Students from the earliest grades are encouraged to work hard and told that the rewards will follow. Students must realize that a grade is earned for achievement and not for the effort expended." John Mahoney of Woodbury, Connecticut commented, "It should hardly be surprising that this generation of college students equates effort with guaranteed success. After all, from the time they first compete as youngsters, be it in T-ball or at birthday party games, all participants are rewarded with a trophy, medal, or prize for merely showing up and taking part regardless of their ability or talent."

Is there any middle ground between the harsh criticism and competition of an earlier generation and the false praise and everyone-wins attitude of the present day? How do we as teachers strike a balance? I propose that we listen to my granddaughter, Corinne, and to my student, Rita.

Seeking together

Corinne's intuitive monitoring of the soccer score suggests that we adults have forgotten that the word "compete" comes from the Latin competere, which means "to seek together." Competition itself isn't a bad thing. Children who seek to build their skills together do better than those who learn alone. Only when they experience their talents in relation to others' do they learn that effort and result don't always match. Sometimes their best attempts fail and their less-than-best succeed. To make an effort and to seek a result together in a shared venture can make both success and failure easier to learn and to bear. 

 As a child, I endured many lonely contests such as the one I recently judged, where the student is released into a cavernous room with only a piano and two judges, who are hidden behind a screen. A disembodied voice tells the student to "Begin" the two pieces he or she has worked on for months of solitary practice. The final chords bring a brusque, "Thank you," followed by hours of waiting to see if you "made it" onto the winners list. Competitions such as these cause a zero-sum outcome. Even if a child wins, success seems related only to the whim of two sets of ears on any given day, and he or she doesn't even get to see those ears or the people who own them!

As a teenager, the musical experience that spurred my best playing happened at music camp. I practiced the Ravel Concerto harder and harder, reaching for a higher and higher performance level, because I heard my younger camp mate, Andrew Rangell, playing it better in the next practice room. We developed a friendly rivalry that included an exchange of technical and musical ideas and, for a lark, a simultaneous performance of the piece for a group of our cheering friends. I didn't need criticism or praise, nor did I need to win. Andy and I both loved that concerto. Our teacher, live performances, and recordings of the concerto guided our ears and fingers toward a high-standard performance of the piece, but the sound of the music itself, not outside praise or criti- cism, let us know how close we were to reaching our goal.

This returns us to Rita's plea: "Just help me fix it." Over the years I have learned to keep both praise and criticism to a minimum. I teach children how to let the music guide them to an optimal performance. As teachers it is our job to provide a model for how the music is supposed to sound, along with the technical guidance to help students connect the movements they make to the sounds they create. It is our job to sit beside children as they learn to work and to teach them that effort and struggle are not only necessary but valuable. It is our job to find ways to spark the engine of their own desire to master every piece they encounter. If we do this successfully, stu- dents will learn to monitor their own progress. Students will internally know whether both their effort and its result deserve an "A" or not.

Leaving both criticism and praise at the door, we can indulge in a different type of exclamation: "What beautiful music you are making!"

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