Praise her … and see her fail

Stephen Grosz Sunday TimesA horror of criticising our children leads to an equally harmful practice, a top psychoanalyst explains to Sian Griffiths

(Sunday Times, 13 January 2013)

Collecting his daughter from nursery one day, Stephen Grosz overheard the assistant tell her: “You’ve drawn the most beautiful tree. Well done.” A few days later he heard her say of another drawing: “Wow, you really are an artist.”
On both occasions, writes Grosz in The Examined Life, his first book, “my heart sank. How could I explain to the nursery assistant that I would prefer it if she didn’t praise my daughter?”

It seems an extraordinary statement. Why would a father — and a psychoanalyst, to boot — not want his daughter to be complimented? Sitting in his consulting rooms in Hampstead, northwest London, Grosz pours me a cup of tea before answering.

“Admiring our children may temporarily lift our sense of self-esteem but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self,” he says. “Empty praise is as bad as thoughtless criticism — it expresses indifference to the child’s feelings and thoughts.”

The Examined Life, a heavily disguised account of the stories disgorged to Grosz by patients over 50,000 hours of analysis, is already a success. Picked up by publishers in several countries before its British release, it was last week’s Radio 4 Book of the Week. It is full of elegant tales designed to get readers reflecting on their lives, just as a patient does with a therapist.

It is the chapter “How praise can cause a loss of confidence” that has been seized on by the chattering classes, for whom praising one’s children is as natural as putting them down for swimming or music lessons.

In The Examined Life, Grosz cites research by the psychologists Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller, who, as part of an experiment, asked 128 children to solve maths problems. On completing the first set of questions, some children were told, “You did really well — you’re so clever”; the others, “You did really well — you must have tried really hard.”

Both sets of children were then given more difficult maths problems. Those who had been praised for their efforts solved more problems and worried less about failing than those who had been told that they were clever.

Even worse, when asked by the researchers to describe the experiment, some of the “clever” children lied about the results: they exaggerated their own scores.

“All it took to knock these youngsters’ confidence, to make them so unhappy that they lied, was one sentence of praise,” writes Grosz. They felt they had to live up to the erroneously inflated opinion others seemed to have of them.

Why is this generation of parents so keen on praising its children? One reason, says Grosz, is that many of us were brought up in families in which criticism was the default mode. We praise our children to “demonstrate that we are different from our parents”.

His parents were old-school. Brought up with two siblings on the shores of Lake Michigan by an immigrant father who wanted to be a lawyer but instead opened a grocery shop and a mother who was an artist, Grosz loved art as a boy.

“Aged 12, I became interested in lettering, and I spent a lot of time doing just different styles of letters. Because my mother knew about commercial art, she once said something like: oh there’s no money in being a type designer. Ha — tell that to Apple now.

“It was a tiny thing but it stopped me. I think it’s so easy to crush our children’s loves.”

Today’s tendency to overpraise children, he argues, is just as bad as criticism. It annoys him so much he even describes it as “aggressive”.

When his daughter was two, Grosz and his wife, Nicola, listened to their babysitter lauding their child “for how she took the wrapping off a cupcake. My wife and I looked at each other, like: ‘This is insane.’ Why would someone go on a kind of babble of: ‘Oh, that’s so great — you took that wrapper off so beautifully’?

“If you go to the local nursery you’ll hear this kind of stuff sometimes mixed in with teaching: ‘Oh, your drawing looks so like a Miro, darling. Is that figurative or abstract?’ And so you get this mix of praise and teaching. I find it, to be blunt, aggressive. Because it’s saying: I don’t want to engage with you as a person; I want to just praise you.”

Banned from praise and criticism, how should parents encourage their children? For Grosz, who decided to write his book when his first child was born — so as to pass on some of the life lessons he had learnt — the answer is simple: “Just listen to what your child wants to tell you. About what they’re interested in and what they’re passionate about.”

That, he says, is the way to build confidence. In the book he tells another story to illustrate what he means. Grosz’s neighbours in Indiana were the Stiglitz family. Charlotte Stiglitz, the mother of Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prizewinning economist, taught remedial reading. Grosz once watched her with a four-year-old who was drawing. When the child stopped, Charlotte Stiglitz remarked: “There’s a lot of blue in your picture.” The child replied: “It’s the pond near my grandmother’s house.”

“Unhurried, she talked to the child, but more importantly she observed; she listened. She was present,” writes Grosz.

“You can be indifferent to children through criticism — ‘Don’t do that’, ‘You’re showing off’, ‘You’re cheeky’, all that sort of stuff — which an earlier generation did,” he explains. “Or you can express indifference through praise. The goal, which is very, very hard to do, is to listen to children.”

For Grosz, this matters because it is part of a bigger — and worrying — picture: of how praise and criticism are used to push children into fulfilling parental aspirations.

When parents say, “We just want our child to be happy”, Grosz points out that they are being hypocritical: “What they really want is for them to be successful.” From an early age middle-class parents push children to do well at school, to go to Oxford or Cambridge or other top universities.

“We have huge ambitions for our kids,” he elaborates. “I’ve seen adolescent patients who know their parents are lying when they say: ‘Darling, all I want is for you to be happy.’ We’re lying to children; we’re saying one thing but, of course, when they don’t get into the college that we want them to get into, there’s suicide, there’s depression, lives fall apart, there’s huge rows between parents and children.” He trails off. “Terrible things happen.”

The harsh truth, says Grosz — who went to Berkeley, one of America’s top universities — is that “not every child is going to end up at Harvard or Princeton, Oxford or Cambridge, but you can depress children; you can make them anxious and feel bad about themselves”.

The wreckage flows through his consulting rooms: “I see the unhappy bankers, the unhappy lawyers” — the professionals at their wits’ end, despite their lucrative careers.

Most of Grosz’s patients are adults, but he says many of these issues are discussed by Madeline Levine, a Californian therapist, in her book Teach Your Children Well. “Her book is a set of case histories of adolescent problems: the eating disorders, the cutting, the drugs, the promiscuity . . .” At one point in her book Levine claims “our idea of success is a complete failure”, says Grosz.

“We treat reception class as the first step on the road to university — and then we pretend we’re not doing that.”

Gosh, I say, how terribly parents are behaving. To my surprise, Grosz cuts in.

“No, none of the parents are bad. They’re all good people. You know, they are people trying to do the best for their kids and they don’t know what to do . . . If you don’t push your children to get A-levels and be a success, what are you offering them? Parents are doing that because they’re very, very frightened of the future; they don’t know what’s going to happen to their kids, they want the best for them and any other option seems that the risks are worse.”

For Grosz, who did not become a father until he was 50, the key to raising happy children is to let them follow their passions. “We simply don’t know what kids are going to need in the future; we don’t even know what skills are required,” he says.

“What my wife and I talk about a lot is wanting our children to be passionate about something, to have things in their life that they care about. My son is seven. He loves playing with computers and cameras. How do we help our children enjoy and thrive in the things they love doing?”