As a legendary and long term youth baseball coach I have witnessed my share of fascinating parental behavior. Not the most extreme is the ongoing phenomenon of parents paying their children for hitting home runs. I am baffled by that behavior. As a lifelong baseball/softball player, home runs have never been my forte. I have never hit a legitimate (over the fence) home run. All my home runs have been inside the park. Hitting a home run is a dream for every player who has ever picked up a bat to play baseball; there is no higher baseball achievement. So why in the world would parents offer their children incentive to do what they already most want to do?
Not only does this behavior not make any sense, studies have shown that praising your kids for achievement is not as effective a parenting method as praising your children for their effort. In fact, praising children for their achievement is actually counter-productive. It causes them to pull back for fear of not achieving; it robs them of confidence and causes them to be addicted to performance. Praising children for their athletic ability, musical ability and intelligence have also been shown to backfire. These are things that are out of their control, and praising them for it tends to cause them to want to give up when things get difficult. “If I am so good, why do I keep striking out” is a common internalization for those praised for achievement or ability as opposed to effort.
Praising for effort is something that builds into a child’s internal motivation system. Effort becomes the focus, not the end result. Since you can control effort, it is the natural place to place energy, the effort is truly the place where achievement is born. Praising children for their effort helps them to persevere in challenging situations, and that essentially builds their self-esteem.
Our sons have not only been involved in sports but have competed academically in National History Day competitions. They have regularly excelled in achievement, winning county and state titles and competing nationally at the University of Maryland against teams from all over the US. I have witnessed this same phenomenon at these events where parents and educators both have mixed up the importance of praising for effort as opposed to achievement. Only one team wins, if we teach our children that only the one team accomplished anything praiseworthy then we have diminished the work of the majority of people in every field across the world.
As we have traveled to the finals in DC for history day I would remind my kids that the work they did in preparing for History Day was its own reward. The research, the teamwork, the writing, performing, interacting, competing, the relationships and the overall experience were things that they could control and celebrate. The judging and awarding of places was out of their control. Encourage your children to do hard things, praise them for their effort in persevering and finishing.