In Praise of Appreciation

The key characteristic of appreciation education is its focus on a child’s strengths and fortes and building upon them, in a bid to awaken a child’s mentality that “I am a good child”. Conversely, a negative education would be one in which the child’s weaknesses and shortcomings are highlighted and magnified, causing the child to lose confidence, allowing him to sink in the misguided mentality that “I am a bad child”.

A simple assumption is made: “Most parents/teachers, if not all say they love their children.”

A simple question asked: “Do your children/students know that?”

According to the Welcome page of One Simple Path, the homepage of Zhou Hong, founder of “Appreciation Education,” 90% of teachers say they love their students but only 10% of students know it.

Now read this:

“Good job!” can undermine independence, pleasure, and interest, it can also interfere with how good a job children actually do. Researchers keep finding that kids who are praised for doing well at a creative task tend to stumble at the next task – and they don’t do as well as children who weren’t praised to begin with… because the praise creates pressure to “keep up the good work” that gets in the way of doing so. Partly because their interest in what they’re doing may have declined. Partly because they become less likely to take risks – a prerequisite for creativity – once they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming.

Let’s say there is Child Y standing in a corner with his back to the room. He is standing there because he is being punished. He is being punished because he cannot remember his multiplication tables while his sister who is younger can recite them with ease.

I used to joke with a friend who would complain about the continual nagging and put downs from her mother: “But that’s how Chinese people show love.”

Score a 90 on a test? Everyone else in the class probably scored 100s.

Teacher says you have a great imagination? Well, you can just imagine getting a good job and living a good life. Stop daydreaming!

Recently, I witnessed a mother and child working on writing a sentence. The child completed the sentence. Muted sense of accomplishment in a timid smile and looking at his mother. The mother says, “What happened to the period? Why did you forget the period again!”

It brought back memories of my mother teaching me to write. No matter what I did, it was not good enough or someone else had already done it better and faster. If it wasn’t a cousin, it was a neighbor’s child. If it wasn’t a neighbor’s child, it was a friend’s child. If not a friend’s child, a coworker’s. And so on and so on. It seemed the entire world was brighter, more beautiful, and more deserving than I was.

Jack Neo, the writer and director of I Not Stupid Too credits Hong’s Appreciation Education for inspiring his script. Both the original movie and the sequel moved me. I have not seen the TV drama yet. Both brought about sometimes painful memories of my childhood. Hours lost staring into corners. The sting of being spanked. The knowledge that I would never be as smart as so-an-so or as tall as this one or as athletic as that one or charming as this and that one.

Now grown up, I do not hate my parents, my mother in particular. Happily, having studied education, I am sensitive to what drives children academically and what just drains them. Though I am not perfect. With my eldest there have been instances where I’ve caught myself crossing the line and becoming my mother or any one of the parents portrayed in Jack Neo’s movies.

I catch myself. I am self-aware.

At least as far as I know.

Which brings me to Alfie Kohn’s piece on praise. While I understand that punctuating everything a child does with “Good Job!” eventually makes the phrase meaningless sort of like “Hi, How’s it going?” can be among passing coworkers, I am not comfortable agreeing that saying nothing or making an observation like “That’s a lot of purple” is any better. I do agree that you should talk less and ask more when wanting to acknowledge a child’s accomplishments.

I like what Alfie Kohn is asking us. I am interpreting his overall message as praise should be meaningful. “Good Job!” should be followed with a constructive observation or question. It should not be used just as end punctuation. However, what he is asking requires a lot of self-awareness. Concepts like “too much” and “too little” are relative. Something that may be too much for Alfie may be just right for me. Praise like salt on fries is an added spice. You do not need it but in the right amounts it does make the meal more enjoyable.

The problem is not the over use of pleasantries like “Good Job!” but the time involved in learning about your child before the occasion arises to provide critical feedback. It is also knowing when to dig deeper and how? He speaks about motives and our long term goals for our children but at some point our long term goals will cease to matter as the child will have goals of his or her own. And who can we rely on to objectively evaluate our motives?

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