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In Praise of Frustration

Children need more experience, rather than less, with frustration.

I can't get no satisfaction.

– The Rolling Stones

New research published by the American Psychological Association suggests that praising children for their personal qualities rather than their efforts tends to undermine feelings of self-worth and increase feelings of shame. The study, which was published recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found that children with low self-esteem in particular were prone to greater feelings of shame when praised for their personal qualities.

As reported in Science Daily, lead author Eddie Brummelman, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands said, “This type of personal praise may backfire. What may seem like common sense can sometimes lead adults astray in their attempts to help children with low self-esteem feel better about themselves.” Brummelman also stated that, “Adults may feel that praising children for their inherent qualities helps combat low self-esteem, but it might convey to children that they are valued as a person only when they succeed. When children subsequently fail, they may infer they are unworthy.”

This research is consistent with the “praise the behavior, not the individual” body of evidence that, in many ways, has been a needed counterpoint to the self-esteem obsession of the 1970s and 1980s. It had been simply assumed that a child’s sense of self-worth or self-esteem acted as a critical factor in determining success in school and, indeed, in life. Schools, in particular, focused on enhancing students’ feelings about themselves and encouraged pride and high levels of self-assurance. This movement was caricatured wonderfully in the Calvin and Hobbs cartoon, with Calvin claiming that, “Homework is bad for my self-esteem. It sends the message that I don’t know enough! So instead of trying to learn, I’m just concentrating on liking myself the way I am.”

Of course, all this focus on self-esteem enhancement was at best unhelpful, and at worst, may have been harmful. Scientific evidence since that time has not supported the “praise the individual above all else” approach. One study showed that inflated self-esteem indeed leads to poorer grades. While this may not explain the narcissistic qualities that some individuals develop over time, surely the self-esteem induced, “post-narcissistic love of the ego,” as Erik Erikson might have put it, has it’s downside.

Perhaps a more interesting offshoot to the question of how we praise children when they succeed is how we support them when they fail. Parents and children come at this with different motives and vulnerabilities. The most benevolent view is that parents always want the best for their kids and see failure as a time for needed emotional shoring up and cheerleading. Some version of, “You’ll be okay, you’ll do better next time.” Our instincts are to help buoy them up. Functioning as surrogate limbic systems for our children when they’re young, we want to empathize and help regulate emotional distress in the face of frustration. In many ways, this is an extension of the affective mirroring that we are drawn into when our children are infants. Another, perhaps less benevolent, view is that we parents are continuing to work out our own childhood dreams, regrets, and aspirations through our children. Their frustrations are our own and the cheering up serves to assuage our own lost hopes and dreams.

For their part, frustration is–in some ways–one of the earliest and most recognizable emotions that children face. Psychological development hinges on how children bear the inherent frustrations of life. At some crucial point, young children learn that the world can be harsh and that parental love only takes you so far. Children then develop defenses, or self-cures, to manage pain and frustration. If these strategies prove insufficient, beliefs related to worthlessness and powerlessness set in–a global sense of futility in the face of frustration. Lurking prominently in the background is a belief or sense that, “Life is frustrating, and this is bad.”

Maybe children (and their parents) need more experience (rather than less) with frustration, more fluency with the emotional currency of failure. By focusing only on praise, we may be sidestepping the other crucial task of bearing frustration. When we jump in to soften distress, we might be unwittingly saying, “something is wrong since you’re in pain.” This kind of emotional learning could take any number of forms. We might be more demonstrative and more vocal in how we deal with our own frustrations as parents. This is counter to the view that children would somehow need to see their parents as calm, predictable, and free of distress all the time. We may need to praise our children for managing frustration successfully. We also need to find more nuanced ways of talking about frustration and its effects. We might, for example, talk about the occasional pleasures of being frustrated. On the other hand, by being avoidant–indeed phobic–of frustration, we imply a worldview that simply does not extend beyond the cradle. We may also be cutting our children off from the satisfaction engendered by frustration.

© 2013 Bruce C. Poulsen, All Rights Reserved

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