One of the curious early childhood theories comes from a man named Alfie Kohn. It's curious because Mr. Kohn has turned praise and rewards into the witch's apple. He thinks praise is a seductively attractive approach to control and manipulate children. He believes that offering treats, praise, rewards and prizes comes from an adult's desire to force children into compliance, to poison their intrinsic sense of fair play and goodness by putting approval up like a mirror - mirror, mirror on the wall.
I've read a lot of Mr. Kohn's articles and parts of his books. I've even listened to his talks, and every time I read or hear him, I am lost to find myself. I've been a teacher for years, but I'm not a teacher he would recognize. Nor is anyone I would ever hire, nor is anyone I've known for a long time who is a teacher who has any respectability. Teachers are not the enemy of children. Good teachers don't emotionally separate themselves from their classrooms like the wicked queen from her subjects.
Twice a week I pick up my grandchild from public school. There is a kindergarten teacher there, Mrs. Faulkenburg, I've known a long time. She brings out her class every day, and every day I watch her face as she guides the children to the curb to wait for their parents. In her face is that wonderful openness and awareness and connection every teacher hopes to have one day. If Mary focuses on a child who is talking to her, there is a whole body connectedness that says love, trust, care, and respect - both ways.
But that won't happen by chance. Without certain elements of communication that become a daily routine of love and appreciation, the connection is never made. Saying truly praiseful things about a child builds the kind of trust that encourages learning and encourages friendship. Silence often breeds contempt. "Why should I congratulate you for the things you should be doing?" asks the hard hearted adult.
Parents and teachers praise children as a natural human response to goodness; they are compelled to do so. It's one heart reaching out to another. And for some children who never hear a moment's praise from home it's the first time they will understand that they are good and that someone respectable and real cares for them.
Why is praise necessary? Why not let the child, as Mr. Kohn says, figure it out for himself? Because children learn what is good and what is not good by something called communication. We communicate because we are human and humans cannot not communicate. Communication in its most advanced state will bring an awareness of the human condition and that allows people to connect, to learn.
Yet, as Mr. Kohn argues, communication has become a rote issue with some adults. "Good job" has become a verbal tic. Yet because the adult has failed to communicate at the highest level, all praise cannot be thought of as an adult first "sugar coated control." That simply puts vice into a virtue and turns all teachers or parents into witches with the apple.
The whole question of communication falters when the idea is not to tell a child what he has done or failed to do in order not to turn him into a praise junkie. Praise junkies might not be as eager for rote praise as they are for genuine and real praise from an adult who they know is not regurgitating the same pap but really focusing on him as a human being and saying something real and meaningful to him as an individual.
My experience does not lead me to believe that my regard is of any value whatsoever if the child is not also a believer in his own intrinsic goodness and achievement - and the adults. Showing a child where he has been outstanding is only one step to understanding achievement. Truth and fiction will divide for the child who is concretely and securely praised with thought and real affection. Children are not stupid; they know a fraud when they see one. And children don't like frauds.
Does praise motivate kids? Sure. It motivates kids to get praise. Alas, that's often at the expense of commitment to whatever they were doing that prompted the praise.