Teaching children: criticism or praise?

It only takes a period drama on television to remind us of how far society has moved in a relatively short period of time.

I watched the first episode of BBC’s The Village last week, and it was shocking to see how a young boy of 12 could be caned on his hand for something as ‘bad’ as being left handed or not knowing how to write well. It was the norm in 1914 to be beaten if you stepped out of line as a child. It was the norm much later on than that – in the 40’s or 50’s and possibly later still. Thank God we have got rid of that particular style of teaching children and that beating or hitting children in schools is a thing of the past.

The cane left but it was replaced initially by verbal abuse. It was considered unacceptable to hit children but perfectly acceptable to belittle them, demean them, tell them that they would amount to nothing and would have no future, an approach that has caused unending damage to generations of children.

As a classical musician and teacher, I and many others, experienced this kind of teaching as a student at conservatoire level. In that rarefied environment, high standards were the only thing that was important and teachers could demand these standards whatever the cost to the student. “Call yourself a musician? Your playing is not up to it! Go away and practice!” was something I heard a few times. Did this approach get the desired results? I doubt it. Or rather, if someone experiences this teaching approach and did well as a musician, they might have suffered in other ways that were less obvious – out-of-control nerves, sudden phobias or other such things.

So it is clear. This kind of negative criticism doesn’t work. It achieves very little in almost all cases. It is unpleasant and bullying. Coming from this kind of cultural background, it is understandable that parents and teachers want to praise their children. Of course, it is natural and praise is essential. You want to acknowledge the effort a child has made, the ability they have shown, their enthusiasm and more. But I feel sometimes that praise can go too far and can be too effusive, which, in a completely different and arguably far less dangerous way, is not good for children.

What happens if teachers aren’t allowed to say anything that could be considered remotely negative to children? If they can’t let a child know how s/he can improve for fear of upsetting the child and for being seen as too ‘critical’? If everything a child does is wonderful, where is there room for improvement? How will anyone know if they have really excelled? And what if the praise is actually dishonest and the child hasn’t done well but the teacher can’t bring him/herself to be critical or negative or is afraid of stepping out of line themselves, with their superiors who insist a child mustn’t be upset at any cost? To my mind this is a swing of the pendulum too far the other way and it must be incredibly confusing for a child.

The ideal is somewhere in the middle. Children need to know where they stand and they need boundaries. They need to know that someone else knows when they are putting in effort, doing well and excelling themselves and they need praise and support for that. They also need to know that someone else knows when they are not putting in effort and not doing well. They need to know so that they know where their boundaries are and so that they can learn to judge their boundaries for themselves. There are times when children play up and step out of line. This is when they need to be reminded of those boundaries and shown what they are capable of.

When I think back to the times when I have been the happiest and have achieved the most as a young person, it was always because an adult believed in me. I knew this without it needing to be spoken, and I automatically raised my game.  It felt magical in a way.

Children need praise and they need support – it goes without saying. But they also need adults around them who are discerning, who are not just going to hand out ‘lazy’ praise, but are prepared to help them know where they stand, help them know their own standards and develop clear judgment of themselves. But above all, what I feel children need is for their adult mentors to believe in them. This way they learn to believe in themselves and anything becomes possible.

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