Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Praise Craze

Even at age 12, Chris is a skilled basketball player. He scores at will for his recreational league team -- but he doesn't get many assists, because he's a ball hog. His teammates sulk during games, waiting for passes that never come. Parents watching from courtside aren't too pleased, either, except for Chris's stepfather, Mike, whose pleasure in the boy's performance is undimmed even when a parent complains to him about Chris's selfishness. Mike later confides to the father of another player that he's not going to talk to Chris about trying to be a more generous player. His stepson has a learning disability, Mike says, "and this is the only place where he can shine."


Mike didn't know it, but he was providing grist for his interlocutor's next book. Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist at Harvard's School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government, recounts the anecdote about Chris's over solicitous stepfather in "The Parents We Mean to Be." ("The Parents We Mean to Be," By Richard Weissbourd, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 241 pages, $25)  It is just one of many illustrative stories that Mr. Weissbourd has gathered over the past two decades. He and his assistants -- including two high-school students, who presumably had good rapport with other teenagers -- surveyed three Boston-area high schools, conducted focus groups, made "informal observations" of families in cities across the country, and interviewed sports coaches, teachers and mental-health professionals.


What did Mr. Weissbourd's research tell him? That nowadays "well-intentioned adults undermine children's moral and emotional development."  Parents have abandoned the "moral task" of rearing children, he says, and are more concerned about fostering their happiness than their goodness. Therapeutic interaction takes precedence over moral instruction; intimacy is maintained at the cost of authority.


"Blaming peers and popular culture lets adults off the hook," Mr. Weissbourd writes. "The parent-child relationship is at the center of the development of all the most important moral qualities, including honesty, kindness, loyalty, generosity, a commitment to justice, the capacity to think through moral dilemmas, and the ability to sacrifice for important principles."


Among the trends that Mr. Weissbourd finds particularly harmful is the fixation of parents on building "self-esteem" (the "praise craze," as he calls it). A psychologist he talks to tells him that by age 12 some children have been so over praised that they regard compliments as implicit criticism: Empty flattery must be compensating for their lack of talent or be meeting a need for extra encouragement. Other children become "praise sponges," Mr. Weissbourd says. In either case, he wonders, what's so great about self-esteem? "Though some violent children have high self-esteem, the self that is being esteemed is immature, incapable of empathy."


“Children's moral development is decided by many factors, including not only media and peer influences but their genetic endowment, birth order, gender, and how these different factors interact.”

Excerpt from "The Parents We Mean to Be"

Mr. Weissbourd is also dismayed by many parents who put subtle but unrelenting pressure on their children for academic and extracurricular achievement. He talks to a 16-year-old who says that his parents make an elaborate display of saying that his getting into a "high-status school" is not important to them, that they just want him to learn and be happy. "But then they pay for SAT prep courses and expensive college counselors," the boy says. "There's already huge pressure on me to achieve." Parental hypocrisy and insincerity do not constitute moral guidance.


Mr. Weissbourd rightly identifies the praise craze and the achievement obsession as a reflection of parental status anxiety. It seems that the more successful parents are, the more likely they are to worry about their children's possible failure to live up to that success. One of the author's most arresting contentions is that the children of immigrants "fare better than their American-born counterparts" in almost every measure of mental and moral health. American-born parents would have a lot to learn from immigrants, Mr. Weissbourd insists. They are comfortable with imposing authority and discipline, and they are optimistic about their children's future.


As a psychologist, Mr. Weissbourd is at his best when he analyzes the all too familiar phenomenon of the overzealous sports parent. In a high-school cafeteria, the author sat in on a meeting between about 30 parents and a sports consultant, who was warning them about becoming over involved. A parent raised his hand and made a confession: "I remember my son's last day playing youth soccer. The game was over, and I remember standing out on the field and thinking to myself: 'What am I going to do with my life?' " The first step toward moral education for kids, Mr. Weissbourd says, is for parents to separate their own needs from their children's and to start regarding parenthood as an opportunity for their own moral growth.


Good advice. But parental self-awareness is hardly more than a baby step on the path toward producing tomorrow's productive and caring adults. Mr. Weissbourd identifies some of the more daunting barriers to healthy enculturation -- among them the breakdown of the two-parent family and the decay of standards for public and private behavior -- but he never really gets beyond superficial solutions to these vexing social problems. Urging pediatricians to encourage fathers to attend their children's check-ups, or suggesting that ministers "ask noncustodial fathers how many times they have seen their child in the last month," is unlikely to convert legions of estranged fathers into engaged parents.


The methodology employed in "The Parents We Mean to Be" similarly does not inspire confidence. We hear about Mr. Weissbourd's interviews and surveys, but the book offers few quantitative results or analyses. Much of the evidence of parental incompetence is anecdotal -- even, as with the story of ball-hogging Chris and his stepfather, based on people that Mr. Weissbourd happened to run into. His stories will no doubt resonate with many readers -- who among us has not encountered an oppressively sports-minded father or an Ivy League-obsessed mother? -- but such vignettes do not add up to a firm sociological thesis.


Mr. Weissbourd also tends to gloss over the institutional failures that have driven many parents to passionate advocacy for their children: the failure of public schools, for example, to uphold high academic and behavioral standards. The influence of the media and celebrity culture on children's mores and material expectations is also far more profound than Mr. Weissbourd would admit. And just who is ultimately responsible for the excesses of the self-esteem craze -- parents or the psychologists and educators whose books parents read for advice?


One effect of parents' over-involvement in their children's' lives has been the demise of those arenas of childhood that were once inviolably the province of children themselves: unsupervised play, neighborhood baseball games and other settings where children first exercised their moral imaginations and were forced to cope independently with their own shortcomings. Parents who lament this turn of events may welcome Lenore Skenazy's "Free-Range Kids," which, like Mr. Weissbourd's book, argues that adults should not always try to protect children from failure. (“Free-Range Kids," By Lenore Skenazy, Jossey-Bass, 225 pages, $24.95)


Ms. Skenazy, a humor columnist, believes we should give "our children the freedom we had without going nuts with worry." She lampoons safety-obsessed parents who see a threat-filled world, from metal baseball bats and raw cookie dough to Halloween-candy poisoners and kidnappers. She advises turning off the news, avoiding experts and boycotting baby knee pads "and the rest of the kiddie safety-industrial complex."


“I really think I'm someone like you: A parent who is afraid of some things (bears, cars) and less afraid of others (subways, strangers). But mostly I'm afraid that I, too, have been swept up in the impossible obsession of our era: total safety for our children every second of every day.”

Excerpt from "Free-Range Kids"


Ms. Skenazy gained a certain national notoriety after she wrote a column about allowing her 9-year-old son to ride the New York City subways by himself. Even parents fed up with our child-coddling culture might blanch at the thought of turning a third-grader loose on public transportation. But Ms. Skenazy will find plenty of supporters for her contention that, in a world where the rights of chickens to roam freely are championed, it's time to liberate the kids.