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How Much Praise is Too Much For Our Kids?

Child Winner
Getty Images, Fox Photos

When I was in school, we always had an end of the year ceremony at which awards were given to students for various achievements. It was a big deal if you won an award, and something that could really instill a sense of pride and self-esteem in a kid. I remember some kids got ribbons for winning art competitions, and others would be recognized for winning a regional spelling bee. Sports, individual subjects, community service, overall academic achievements and other accomplishments were all praised at this assembly

I received a couple of awards over the several years. Not a lot, but the ones I won – a 1st place spelling competition plaque, a 1st place art ribbon, and a volunteer award for working with special education students – are awards I will never forget. Even though I can’t tell you where any of these prizes are (probably stored somewhere at my parents’ house), I’ll always remember how I felt when I was given these awards.

I mention this, because my son came home from school at the end of his 5th grade year, and he held a fistful of ribbons in his hand. He showed them all to me as soon as he got home, and let me know that he couldn’t quite understand why he received so many. My first reaction was “Wow! This is amazing. Look at all these awards!”. I took the ribbons, sat down with my son, and looked at each one individually.

I saw a 1st place science project ribbon. Cool. I know he worked really hard on that project. I gave him a high five and a one-arm hug. I could tell he was proud, and so was I.

Next was ribbon he got for doing well in a P.E. competition. Nice effort. He told me how he ran a mile without stopping, and was the only kid in class who didn’t have to break stride. I was impressed!

As I looked on in this pile of awards, my smile must have changed to a very puzzled look. There were a couple 5th place, a 6th place, a 9th place ribbon, and some “participation” ribbons included in the stack (mind you, his class consisted of about 11 kids).

Ribbons
Brenda Wheaton

I understand that acknowledging participation is nice, but at what point do these ribbons accomplish the opposite of what they are intended for, and remind children that they didn’t come very close to winning? You rarely hear an adult brag about the participation ribbon they received for submitting a poem into a contest in 4th grade. And I’m not trying to say that if you don’t win, it doesn’t count. I just want my children to participate in activities, try their best, and achieve what they are capable of every time. Giving a child a ribbon just for showing up doesn’t encourage them to try their best. Does it?

I’m not a closed-minded person. All I want, like any parent, is what is best for my kids. If I’m wrong, and somebody can prove it, I’d love to hear the argument.

How do you feel about this? Do you believe there is such a thing as “empty praise”, and do you think it helps or hurts our kids’ learning progress?

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