updated 1 Sep 2012, 18:27
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Mon, Aug 27, 2012
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Can praise kill kids' motivation?
by Clara Chow

Hands up if you, like me, are an over-praiser of kids.

I can't help it. Whenever my two young sons do anything vaguely independent, I turn into a creepy cheerleader.

Ah Boy managed to pee straight into the toilet bowl at 2 1/2 years, for instance, and I turned on the rah-rah spirit immediately.

"Clap hands for him!" I cried to the entire family.

His six-year-old kor kor finished constructing a toy train track by himself and the cheerleader appeared again.

"Good job!" I said with sky-high enthusiasm, ruffling his hair. "Fantastic!"

The brothers could be sitting by themselves on the sofa, watching cartoons and minding their own business, but Cheerleader Mum could pop up.

"Aiyah, so clever!" I would squeal, while smothering them in kisses.

Why clever? I don't really know. Just being in existence, I guess.

Conventional wisdom - at least in the last, "enlightened" attachment- parenting decade or so - has it that one should motivate and encourage kids, to spur them on to greater heights.

Harsh, blaming words when they fail might dash their fragile egos; praise, when it is due, can do wonders to their psyche.

What happens, however, when one goes overboard and tips too far into the abyss of praise? The New York Times recently ran a parenting column that posited that over-parenting hurt, rather than helped, children.

It cited research by psychologist Carol Dweck at Stanford University which indicated that too much praise actually hinders kids' ability to reach their fullest potential. In one experiment, young kids were asked to solve a simple puzzle by themselves.

When they did so, Dr Dweck told some of them that they were smart and capable. As a result, the ones who were not praised ended up more motivated and confident when it came to solving increasingly difficult puzzles.

One possible interpretation of this is that kids who are praised end up less willing to try and tackle harder tasks, for fear of losing that "smart" status.

My take is that over-praised kids simply take praise at face value and see no need to earn it.

They buy into the over-praising parents' rhetoric that they are the best, the smartest, the most wonderful kids in the whole universe.

Why do anything to further yourself, if you are already all that?

I have noticed that my elder son, Julian, is liable to give up on things he does not master within a few attempts, and often turns to us parents mid-task to receive the reassurance that is bound to come his way.

His younger brother, Lucien, however, just gets on with any task he sets his sights on. As the second child, he did not have the kind of hovering attention that we lavished on Julian.

Sometimes, he would figure out how to do something on his own - such as taking off his clothes, or acquiring a new piece of vocabulary - and it would be days before I noticed.

Looking back, my relative inattentiveness has actually helped the boy learn determination.

Each piece of work, in the daily business of living, is a go-for-broke undertaking for Lucien.

Sure, he sometimes gets frustrated and throws a tantrum.

But, should I try to help him, he retorts: "Let me! Let me!" So, here I am, trying to kick my over-praising habit.

Like two dieting teenagers, my fellow-mummy friend K and I keep tabs on each other's progress.

"Have you stopped over-praising the Babycrat yet?"

I asked, referring to her two-year-old son with her bureaucrat husband.

"I've stopped saying he's clever, but I can't stop saying he's cute!" she moaned.

"Hmm, saying he's cute is okay," I reasoned, employing my fuzzy logic. "Cute is innate. He doesn't have to try to be cute or be motivated to be cuter."

"Oh, okay. Yay!" she replied. And we gave ourselves firm little pats on our backs.

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