Belfast Telegraph

A four-year-old should be given praise as long as it's deserved

By Jane Merrick

I haven't been a great listener to all the advice inflicted on new parents. So-called parenting bibles, whose attempts to apply a magical formula to everyday life, go against every one of my basic instincts as a mother.

My four-year-old daughter has dreamt up her own rule for how many biscuits she is allowed - "Three is piggy, two isn't" - which I don't always apply. But my own, very loose, approach is to tell her off when she does something wrong and reward her with praise when she does something well. What's wrong with that?

A great deal, if the warnings of a joint Dutch-US study published this week are anything to go by. The scientific paper claims that giving children too much praise turns them into narcissists with low self-esteem.

Instead of telling our children that they are special, we should say they are as good as anyone else, according to the researchers.

My own daughter is in her first year at school and, as a summer-born child, needed a lot of encouragement to keep up with her classmates in reading and writing.

At bedtime the other night, she read the word "naughty" correctly in a book, entirely independently. I don't use this example to boast about my daughter's reading skills, but to say I refuse to feel guilty, or embarrassed, about lavishing praise on her.

Does this mean I will cheer every scribble she draws? No. But I will give her plenty of positive reinforcement.

I am more determined to do this because she is a girl. There is a widespread assumption that, throughout school, girls become fearful of putting up their hands in class, or do not believe they can do subjects like science, maths or technology.

Last week, my daughter was at a sports club in a group of children where she was the only girl. The coach asked a simple question to which she knew the answer, but I watched as her arm remained by her side while all the boys put up their hands.

This is not just about my daughter (that really would be narcissistic), but there is a wider point about society. When I was at a comprehensive school in the 1980s and early-1990s, there was a culture of shying away from talent. Mediocrity ruled, "specialness" was not allowed.

Contrast that with the experience of my friend who went to a top girls' day school at the same time, where the ethos was: "You can be anything you want to be."

I believe this contrast between the state and private sectors is less stark today, but telling children that they are merely as good as everyone else is depressingly anti-aspirational.

There is also something rather British in fighting shy of effusive praise. I prefer the go-getting attitude of the US. After all, they have the world's largest economy and nearly always head the Olympic medals table.

Americans are so renowned for being over the top that three years ago David McCullough, an English teacher, told graduating students in Boston, Massachusetts, that none of them was special. He was fed up with seeing overly praised, cosseted pupils thinking they were better than they really were.

The answer must be not to lump every child into a mass of mediocrity, but to tease out each individual's special abilities and talents.

No child should be left behind, of course, but nor should they be held back from aiming high in case it risks turning them into arrogant adults.

I am not ashamed to say it, but I am a pushy parent.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph