Back when I taught preschool the other teacher and I were sitting watching the kids run around the indoor play space. She was telling me the problem with praise.
“See, when you praise them you are telling them that your approval is conditional,” she told me. “Plus you’re creating more need for it. It’s never enough. If you say it’s good this time and don’t next time, they think whatever they did next time is a failure. You have to let them build their own internal approval systems.”
“But then what do you say to them? What do you say when they show you a picture or something like that?” I was skeptical.
“You describe it.”
Just then Lori* trotted by and she happened to be wearing new shoes.
“Hey Lori!” Amy called. “Look at you! You have brand new shoes!”
Lori stopped, looking down at her shoes as if she’d forgotten that she was wearing them.
“I got them last night,” she said. “My mommy took me after school.”
“They are certainly bright blue shoes!” Amy said.
Lori grinned then skipped off sunnier than she had been before.
“There you go,” Amy said to me. “She just wants to be seen.”
Praise is easy but seeing someone is hard. It takes so much more effort. We can toss off a compliment (“Nice shoes!”) much more easily than we can stop a minute to focus and see the shoes.
You know how sometimes we leave a conversation with someone feeling slightly rumpled and disgruntled and realize it’s because we feel like they could have been talking to anyone and it wasn’t us they were talking to at all. We all want to be seen and acknowledged.
It feels lousy when no one sees you. It feels lonely. We all want people to see our metaphorical shoes, really see them and see us wearing them and note that we are here.
I was twenty-one when Amy and I had that conversation and it’s stuck with me every since.
* Name changed
This was a repost from my former personal blog, this woman’s work.