The other day I was in a restaurant and I overheard someone say to a kid, “Stop pushing your sister. You’re a horrible boy. If you don’t start behaving the devil will come and snatch you away. You’re evil and mean.”
I about fell out of my chair and I glared in the direction of the other table. The child was hanging his head and the adult was continuing the tirade, now sounding even more incoherent. I held my tongue, long ago realizing that comments to others in public places rarely help and often make things worse—so I didn’t jump up and give the adult a quick lesson in child management. But, I was tempted and as always shocked that people are still saying things like that to kids.
If the kid in the restaurant regularly gets feedback like that, his chances of feeling positive about himself are pretty bleak. Research would suggest that he might be at risk for becoming a bully and doing poorly in school. Most people understand that it’s not great to humiliate, degrade, or call children names.
That’s good. Kids should be nurtured and nourished. The message that kids will react with increased effort and improved behavior when given positive reinforcement has become firmly rooted in our culture. That’s great. Most of the time.
However, there are times when too much praise can have the opposite effect. Let’s say you ask a child to do a task. The child puts very little effort into doing the task but gets rewarded anyway. For example, a girl is asked to complete a page of math problems before she can go out for recess. The girl, anxious to go play, writes down numbers without really trying to figure out the correct answers. So, by chance she gets a few correct and most of the answers wrong. She is perfectly capable of working out all of the answers but doesn’t really want to. Her teacher remarks that she did a good job on three problems and maybe next time she can do more. The child is rewarded for a barely mediocre job. She is less likely to put in effort in the future than had she been told that she needed to go back and redo her paper.
This happens all of the time in teaching and parenting. I know I’ve been guilty. Sometimes, we just get tired of making the effort ourselves. After all, sometimes it’s easier to give in rather than stand firm and have high expectations. Yet in the long run, kids don’t benefit from empty praise.
What does this have to do with anxiety? Both the kid who was the recipient of verbal abuse and the one excessively praised stand at higher risk of developing anxiety. That’s because neither one learns how to tolerate frustration and persevere through difficulties. Neither one has an accurate self-view. Raising resilient kids takes a little more work, but it’s worth the effort.