6 Jul 2018

Jill Klein on parenting mistakes: Praise, punishment and participation trophies

From Afternoons, 1:21 pm on 6 July 2018

Participation trophies and constant praise of children's natural talents do not help children, or the adults they become, in the long run, says Professor Jill Klein from the University of Melbourne.

A Photo of a group of girls learning to climb on an adventure course

Photo: ambrozinio/123RF

She explains there's nothing wrong with praise, but praise should be given for effort and focus on the learning process, not natural talent.

"The mistake we made in parenting I think was thinking that we just give kids high self esteem by stamping it on their forehead," she says.

"We've robbed our kids of their opportunities by just glossing over everything and just continually telling them that they're wonderful.

"So .. if you've been raised as a kid, told you've got it, you've got it, you're the special one, you're so great at this, you're so talented, you're so smart', then when you get hit with a setback or a failure it's very confronting.

"It's very threatening to identity because if you 'either have it or you don't' then this could mean 'I don't have it'.

Klein lectures in business at University of Melbourne, and the author of a book We Got The Water: Tracing My Family's Path Through Auschwitz, which details her father's tale of resilience and survival in a Nazi concentration camp. 

She also works with Olympic coaches and medical schools to promote having a growth mindset over a fixed mindset.

"With a growth mindset a setback or failure says 'well, if this is something I want to get good at, then I need to work harder. I need to get help or get coaching, I need to keep going, I need to stretch.

A volunteer carries a timing clock at the Optus Aquatic Centre ahead of the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games on March 30, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / YE AUNG THU

 A volunteer carries a timing clock at the Optus Aquatic Centre ahead of the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games on March 30, 2018. Photo: AFP

She says the key is in how we approach praise, where a reward for effort and hard work is better than a trophy for simply taking part, but also better than one based solely on results.

"The critical thing is praising the process, so if your kid doesn't do that well on an exam, but their preparation was excellent - it was the best preparation you'd ever seen them do, they really really worked hard at it - then you want to praise the process.

"It's not pretending that the outcome was everything you'd hoped for and everything else, the discussion is about 'what could we improve in the process so next time around there's a better outcome'.

It's also about how we approach success.

"When a kid does great at an exam, instead of saying 'oh, you're so smart' you could say, 'well, I noticed you were really working hard on that'.

A file photo shows university students studying for an exam

Photo: 123RF

She says one example is first-year medical students, where most would have already been top-grade students for their whole lives, but are suddenly competing with others at the same grade, but on a curve.

"And some of them are going to be in the bottom half of the class for the first time in their lives.

"When they fail it can have really disastrous consequences."

It is a similar experience for elite sportspeople, she says.

"I've done some work at the Australian Institute of Sport with some of the Olympic coaches and they can see this kind of thing happen sometimes where very young sportspeople - you know, they've always been by far the top kid on the track or in the swimming pool.

"You could suddenly be a 15-year-old who's the weakest kid in the pool and that has never ever happened to you before."

"If that kid has been praised for being a natural and so special and having this incredible talent and they're not doing as well as they're used to doing then the judgement they can make of themselves is 'maybe I really don't have it and I should go do something else', or 'I want to go back to that swimming pool where I'm the fastest."