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

Related Articles

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less