Is Praising Our Children Creating More Anxiety?

When a trophy just for showing up does more damage than good. 

While walking through the Union Square farmer’s market five years ago, I stopped at a vendor to pick up vegetables. A woman next to me was purchasing a few bags of something, while her child, probably about two years old, reached into the broccoli and pulled out a stem. He proceeded to shove it into his mouth. A moment later, his mother looks down, grabs it from him, and tosses it back into the pile, spit and all.

I mention this. She turns, quickly, rabidly: "Well I guess you don’t have children!" and storms off. I look at the vendor with a gaze of, You’re going to leave that there?, spit still dripping from its side. He reluctantly pulled it from the pile. The lesson, one that I’ve heard over and again: Never tell a parent how to parent. 

In fact, there are three untouchables in America: parenting, food, and religion. Criticism in any of these realms is off limits. The first two are often entwined, which has resulted in a stunning increase in childhood obesity and diabetes. As social creatures, our bullheaded turn toward individualism has brought with it unforeseen neuroses and diseases.

But if we don’t question what’s "sacred," we’ll never really know what value it holds. In August, NFL linebacker James Harrison made headlines when denouncing the notion that "everyone gets a trophy." When his sons received trophies for participating in athletics, though not winning anything, Harrison returned them. He went on,

Sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better.

Sagely advice from a man who has risen to the top of his game. Back here in the world of mortals, psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz came to a similar conclusion in his beautiful book, The Examined Life: How We Lose Ourselves And Find Ourselves. A collection of stories from his quarter-century listening to the stories of his patients, he discusses how too much praise can result in a loss of confidence as one matures. 

Grosz was made uncomfortable by a nursery assistant constantly heaping praise on his daughter. Too much praise, he knew from a decade of studies, can paralyze a child. He cites a 1998 study of 10- and 11-year-olds. After completing a set of simple mathematical exercises, researchers divided the 128 students into two groups. One set was told they performed excellently due to their cleverness; the other, that they did well because they tried hard. 

Faced with more challenging problems, the students who were told they tried hard did exactly that: They were resilient and, when failing, attributed it to insufficient effort, not an internal crisis. The "clever" students, however, responded differently: They became over-concerned with failing, showing less tenacity as the questions grew tougher. Their anxiety levels grew and self-esteem dropped. And those children lied when asked how well they performed later on.

Grosz continues:

In trying so hard to be different from our parents, we’re actually doing much the same thing — doling out empty praise the way an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism. If we do it to avoid thinking about our child and her world, and about what our child feels, then praise, just like criticism, is ultimately expressing our indifference.

Excessive praise — or, as some critics argue, any praise — might be a form of control. Heaping good words upon children because we want them to do well is manipulative as it causes them to seek comfort in praise instead of for the satisfaction that the work itself provides. While the research behind this is focused on youngsters, it is easy to see how emotionally stunted adults play out these childish fantasies on social media platforms, constantly seeking approval through likes and followers.

An aversion to criticism is unhealthy, however, as long as it attempts to build up, not knock down. Harrison didn’t want his sons growing up learning that just showing up is enough if you want to excel in life. The potential for lethargy is great; the anxiety that follows is tragic.

We witness this in American society daily. In his book My Age of Anxiety, Scott Stossel writes that while the number of prescriptions of anti-anxiety medication is continually rising, the number of people reporting anxiety is not shrinking. Collectively, American workers miss 321 million days per year, to the tune of $50 billion — again, a number on the ascent.

Can we blame all of this on too much childhood praise? Of course not. Nothing is so simple. Yet to wrap our heads around what we’ve become, we have to investigate how we’ve gotten where we are. Those three untouchables — how we raise our children, what we put into our bodies, and what we put into our heads — need to be touched, contemplated, grappled with, and, if need be, ripped apart and begun again. Turning a blind eye to our dark spots will never bring light to how we move forward. Instead of yelling at the guy pointing out the spittle on the broccoli, perhaps it might be all right to start teaching your child what goes into (and comes out of) your mouth matters.

Image: Christian Science Monitor / Getty Images

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.