Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Praise Inflation

As a college student, I was briefly into a book by B.F. Skinner called Walden Two. It was a Utopian fantasy and as I remember, the rule was you never said thank you to anyone or praised them because people should just do what’s right. Then there was that horrible movie Whiplash with that psychopathic music teacher who shouted and hit and threw things at his students and told them they were garbage and said the two worst words a teacher could say was “Good job!” Then there was the Bible quote I read daily in my high school chapel services: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.” And don’t forget, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

I know deep down in my bones that people of all ages need sincere praise the way plants need water and sunlight. That the Whiplash style creates fear in the room and shuts people down to their lowest instinctive brain, blocking access to higher thinking skills and imagination. The open mind and heart and body are the beginning of wisdom, not fear of a wrathful god or an angry teacher. So I have lived my life in defiance of fear-based education and tried to offer a model of fun, warmth, humor and love. And mostly it has worked pretty well.

But yet again at school, I’m finding myself pissed off at the tone of certain classes and the kids thinking that it’s just fine to have side-conversations and ignore the teacher (ie., me!) if they feel like it. And so continuing the conversation opened in my Three Truths blog, I’m feeling that the Praise Inflation in my school has reared some unsightly little demons and monsters. My go-to tone is relaxed and friendly, but it has felt that the some classes this year didn’t step up to the mark and fell short of the idea that they would be as respectful to me as I am to them.

So after gently cajoling one class this morning, I finally said, “Enough. I’m walking out of the room and you need to clean it and if you want to find me to apologize, I’m open to hearing it.” To their credit, they did clean the room and about 8 of them sincerely apologized. When the next half-group came in, I told them what happened and let them know I would be in police mode and that a single word of interruption would have severe consequences. They got quiet, seemed to figure out that I really meant it and I had the most delightful class with 100% attentive listening and no interuption. Likewise, the entire elementary school came into to singing—100 kids—without a single sound and stayed 100% focused during the 15-minute period. A combination of game-playing (“This will be a school record!!”), threats (“No mudpie dessert on the last day of school if I need to talk to you.”) and reflection (“How many kids sincerely enjoyed the feeling in the room compared to yesterday when you came in so noisily?)

Temporary measures all, but I should be happy that they were effective and of course, it’s a reminder to me to be 100% clear about my expectations and follow through with consequences. And a reminder to them to step up to the task of being a good student and not feel that they constantly have to express themselves. To be blunt, they need to learn to shut-up and listen.

Having been around kids in Europe, Asia, West Africa, I can safely generally say that this is a bit of an American problem, this notion of giving kids too much power and wanting to be too much their friends and being part of a culture that has some pretty miserable role models of how an adult should act (see POTUS and his henchmen). Again, as a child myself, I rebelled against the blind respect of elders and bought into the idea that such respect needed to be earned. But I’m changing that tune somewhat. Especially since what we’re actually offering at school is so much more engaging, child-friendly, creative and just plain fun than what I had to sit through.

In the world of material things, it is a gospel truth that scarcity breeds appreciation and abundance breeds taking things for granted (is there a word for this?). Why was gold so valuable? Because it was scarce. No one built an economy on pebbles. When there’s not much of something, we tend to value it more. When everything comes easily with little effort and is easily replaceable, we don’t attend to it as carefully as we might.

And so with praise. The more we praise, the less it is valued. Think of those classic novels where a parent withholds praise and demonstrative love from a child and then on his or her deathbed, gives a few words of blessing.  After a lifetime of starvation, that little morsel can redeem it all. Well, at least in the novels.

I don’t recommend such extremity of no praise, as it indeed causes more suffering than any human being, child or adult deserves. But likewise, the constant waterfall can cause a different kind of damage. In short, praise what it indeed praiseworthy in small doses, praise the action more than the person, praise what has contributed to the community.

Now please tell me, how did you like my blog?! J

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