On a recent soggy morning, Mark Theissen covered a lot of ground fast in his first-grade classroom at Vadnais Heights Elementary School. He sprang from station to station, encouraging students to finish and focus -- sound words out, craft Lego configurations mathematically, grip Crayolas in the correct way.
He asked questions but didn't back-pat; he prodded but didn't praise. Nor did he carry the ball, merely offering assists. That's because when Theissen, 36, began teaching in 2000, the backlash against overpraising children was in full swing.
"I try to avoid complimenting them all the time," he said. "If they get strokes for everything, they expect it, they think everything they do is great -- and they don't want to push themselves. I think they need to develop self-drive and the need to perform for personal satisfaction, not recognition from others."
But affirmation overload, most experts agree, is indeed a tough habit to break.
It began as the byproduct of the 1980s self-esteem movement, in which parents and teachers were told to reward and stroke kids pretty much constantly, supposedly to make them confident.
Dr. Ernie Swihart, an author and behavioral pediatrician at South Lake Pediatrics in Minnetonka, decried the self-esteem movement from its inception. Then, as now, he believed kids should be taught to be inwardly focused, self-sufficient creatures able to shift their own gears.
Real self-esteem -- for all of us -- comes from overcoming an obstacle-laden challenge, he believes, with hard work. Lavishing praise, he contends, is counterproductive and, if anything, makes kids needy and voracious for that other self-esteem-movement buzzword: validation.
"It's had serious repercussions," Swihart said. "These young adults who were raised in the '80s, now in their 20s and in the workplace -- those who received praise, rewards and prizes for everything they did without working very hard -- often are very entitled and self-absorbed.
"And in this economy, baseless self-satisfaction and entitlement are dangerous. Those are the people who are first to be let go."
Kids need honest feedback
But the overpraise culture still exists. Go to any baseball field this spring and you'll hear parents calling out "good job" and "great swing" to a kid who fans the ball by 6 inches. What they probably should be saying, if anything, Swihart says, is the more honest "no big deal," "next time" or "that's OK."
If all kids get is kudos, it can be a recipe for lots of therapy later, he says: What are they going to do when they get even the slightest bit of criticism later in life, in college or on the job?
"The roof falls in. They should get honest, but not hurtful, feedback," Swihart said. "Steady, ongoing correction."
Steven McManus, a family therapist in Golden Valley, agreed.
"Although I think this [over-praising] movement is basically rooted in good intentions, these are often the young adults I see as clients," McManus said. "Often they have difficulty at conflict resolution, disappointment or tolerating any negative emotions at all."
Rheta DeVries, a professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, classified overpraise of children as "sugar-coated control." "All teachers are well-intended, and I don't like to criticize teachers," DeVries said. But if they praise early and praise often, it can foster kids who clamor constantly for recognition, like seals barking for fish.
"[Overpraising] manages children's behavior. And, though we mostly know it's counterproductive, we still hear it all the time. Established universities are sending out student teachers and the only thing coming out of their mouths is 'good job,' 'good job,' 'good job.'
"It's like a verbal tic."
Reining in the praise impulse made immediate sense to Theissen as a new teacher, he said: It just rang true that cooing and gooing at kids all the time builds outer-directed praise junkies. In the nine years since, he's become even more convinced that gushing over every small accomplishment backfires, coddling kids to their detriment.
Although Theissen tries to run a platitude-free zone, he conceded that it can be a challenge. At home, the father of three young children and his wife (also an elementary school teacher) sometimes catch themselves starting to "good job" their own kids.
"I guess we're just all so ingrained to it," he said.
A culture of superlatives
In academia, the praise culture has led not just to grade inflation, but grade obfuscation. At Vadnais Heights and all its elementary schools, the White Bear Lake School District's policy is to grade students as "Needs to Improve," "Progressing," "Progressing Plus," "Successful" or "Exceptional."
Which raises the questions: Huh? Progressing from what? From a B level or a D level? From above average or below? Theissen concedes that today's grading systems can confuse, whereas "parents know what a C means."
But we are loath as a culture to use letter grades, pointed out Becky Farber, principal at Carondelet Catholic School in Minneapolis and a former teacher and middle school director at the Breck School in Golden Valley. Farber said all teachers ascribed, at least for a time, to the praise-them-to-the-skies theory.
"We all tried it in the '80s -- until we sort of realized en masse that it wasn't genuine, and it wasn't effective."
But even though the pendulum has swung back, Farber said, it remains largely a culture of superlatives. We're reluctant to call anyone -- and anyone's performance -- average.
"We tell everyone they're great and excellent and the best," Farber said. "And so they go around thinking, 'Wow, we're the best' at whatever -- say, basketball. And then they play Hopkins, and they realize, 'Maybe not.'
"Even Garrison Keillor classifies all the children of Minnesota as above average," she said. "There are these sad and negative connotations to the term, but the truth is, most of us fall in that bell curve, the bell curve of average.
"Why are we so afraid to say it?"
Kate McCarthy is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.