The millennial generation has accumulated a number of different names, one of the most scathing being the “participation trophy” generation.
The name gives a nod to the consolation prizes which have long sought to boost the self-esteem of children unable to land a first, second, or third place trophy. Unearned praise, we seem to have determined, is necessary to ensure that children don’t get depressed and fall further behind their peers.
But as it turns out, the opposite may be true. According to a new study, praise is only effective in helping children grow and succeed when it is rightly deserved. Reporting on the study, New York Magazine explains:
“The best outcome, the authors found, happened when adults praised children in equal measure to their accomplishments, rather than piling it on as motivation (or withholding it as motivation, for that matter). When parents believed they were lavishing praise on a kid that hadn’t earned it – or, on the other end of the spectrum, if they believed they didn’t praise them as much as they deserved – their children tended to do worse in school and to show greater symptoms of depression. The same was true from the kids’ perspective. When they felt like the effort they were putting in didn’t match the parental feedback they were getting, their grades and mental health both suffered.”
Such an outcome should cause many of us to sit back on our heels, roll our eyes, and mutter, “Well, obviously! Isn’t that common sense?”
But judging from the participation trophy culture which surrounds us, this is apparently not the case.
The fact is, children are far more perceptive than we give them credit for. If we think we can coax them along to greater heights of success in life simply by propping them up and making them feel good about themselves, we’re in for a rude awakening.
Praise is a wonderful and beneficial motivator for humans, young and old. But would we see a generation of much more well-adjusted and capable young people if we started using it only when it’s earned and deserved?
Annie Holmquist is editor of Intellectual Takeout, an online magazine and sister publication of Chronicles.