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Monday, October 31, 2005

The refrigerater door dilemma

In most households with young children the refrigerator door becomes the official repository/gallery of artwork, poetry and assorted flotsam/jetsam of our children's creative efforts. 

We oooh and aahhh over their handiwork and assure them it is "wonderful"... "beautiful"... "we are soooo proud!"   And for the most part we are being perfectly honest with them. 

But as the kids get older, we parents have a responsibility to steadily (yet imperceptibly) raise the bar on our expectations of them... as well as their expectations of themselves.  Let's face it... beyond a certain age, not every dashed-off scribble is worthy of the refrigerator door. 

We still look forward to the poems, drawings and stories from our kids.  But these offerings are often accepted with spelling pointers, design tips and plot suggestions.  Such gentle nudges from parents are supposed to help encourage and develop our children's gifts... after all, aren't all children inherently gifted?

That's what we tell ourselves, but at a certain point (I'm not sure exactly where the point is), we are faced with the reality that our 'gifted' children excel at some things... and are, um, less excellent at others.

This is where I'm starting to get a bit lost as a parent.

You see Ariella and Gilad (A.K.A. the big kids) are both quite gifted in certain areas... and they each have, uh, limitations in others.  The problem is that they excel and, well, don't excel at different things.  Worse still, they are both quite competitive with one another, and frequently vie for our attention/praise via their creative efforts. 

Ariella inherited her mother's gifted eye for design and color, while Gilad inherited only the color of his mother's eyes.  By the same token, Gilad inherited my musical ear, while Ariella at best inherited the delicate shape of my ears.

So how do I praise Ariella's artwork when Gilad is clearly only average at visual tasks?  And how do I lavish Gilad with praise for his musical abilities when Ariella's musical talents so far remain, er, hidden (I'm being kind)?

It would be one thing if each of them seemed to realize where their talents (and shortcomings) lay and began pursuing different creative activities.  But to make matters more complicated, they each seem to enjoy participating in both visual and musical endeavors without any apparent regard for the relative quality of the outcome... and use these pursuits to vie for our attention/approval.

So, at what age is it appropriate for a parent to begin telling a child that not every piece of his/her artwork is worthy of the Louvre (or even the refrigerator)? 

How old is old enough to break the news that, while sweet to a father's biased ear, not everyone finds a song sung in constantly (and randomly) changing keys to be worthy of lavish praise?

Both of the big kids are extremely enthusiastic about their creative endeavors, and give no indication of feeling limited in any way.  So why am I feeling like I'm doing them a disservice by not steering them towards (what I perceive to be) their strong suits... and away from areas where they show less promise?

Do I simply wait for 'the real world' to deliver the painful message that some of their efforts may not measure up to the standards necessary for inclusion on that metaphorical refrigerator door of life?


Posted by David Bogner on October 31, 2005 | Permalink


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This is actually my father's area of expertise, so as often happens, I'm a little wary of responding in his stead. Maybe I'll ask him what he thinks (and if you're interested, I can lend you one of his books where he discusses this issue.)

But the main issue is - why do you need to give them "lavish praise"? Many studies show that praise can actually harm children's self-esteem. And that is certainly true when it comes to creative activities like art and music.

Shouldn't it matter more what they think about what they did and why they did it that way than your "praise"?

Posted by: Dave | Oct 31, 2005 1:33:20 PM

Here's my take on it (although I'm sure others may disagree) - I don't think you can do your children lasting harm by praising their efforts. Life is harsh, the workplace can be tough - but if a kid starts out with a foundation of great self esteem from the home, I think the other stuff can sort itself out. There will be plenty of people to tell them when they don't cut it. They need to know that their parents think they walk on water. And so many "average" people have excelled because of effort and determination and ambition - and that's a spirit that's very easily squashed by too much criticism and negativity.

Posted by: mata hari | Oct 31, 2005 2:24:47 PM

My older son (11) is a better athlete, the younger one (10) is a better musician, for example. But they have both tried to be good athletes and musicians. Looking back at it, we praised their efforts, not so much their results. If they didn't make the effort, they didn't get praise (and not every effort is praiseworthy).

They have sort of naturally figured out what they were good at and what they preferred. Now, younger son plays soccer and realizes it's not one of his strengths (people run circles around him), but he's a good drummer. Older son tried to learn an instrument and found he had no interest in it at all (I have a guitar to sell!), but he's a good soccer player.

Posted by: Steve Bogner | Oct 31, 2005 2:42:12 PM


Just to clarify, BOTH big kids have real talent in the area of art/visually-related forms of expression. Gili seems to have inherited a very keen sense of color and composition, while Ari seems to have inherited excellent fine-motor skills and an extraordinary ability to mimic the 3-D world within the confines of a 2-D environment.

[shoots exasperated look for failing to recognize Gili's ability in the direction of the guy who didn't know what periwinkle was until I entered his life!]

Still I have to admit to the veracity of the general tone of this post. And can even add that the competition between the older 2 sibs is so intense that one of them won't even make an attempt if there is even so much as a whiff of a hint that they might be compared to the other's efforts....


Dave: I too have seen many studies which indicate that baseless praise can, in fact, be detrimental to a child's self esteem. And not just in the long-term. Faber and Mazlish of the "How to Talk so Your Kids....", "Siblings without Rivalry", and "Liberated Parents, Liberated Children" fame contend that kids know when they're being BS'd. F&M further contend that kids become insecure when they receive praise they KNOW don't deserve and have a harder time accepting the praise that they do deserve because it becomes valueless when there is no difference in the quality of feedback they receive for their efforts.

Therefore, in the Treppenwitz household you can hear a lot of: "You must be so proud of your grade! It shows how much effort you put into preparing for the exam!" Or, "I really like the colors you've used in this painting. They work well together and show real imagination. I must admit to not knowing what the shapes are supposed to be though, can you help me understand what they ARE?!" The last type of statement might be followed up with something akin to: "Hmmm. Well.... I don't think you were as successful in communicating that this is a picture of a kitten drinking from a bowl. But, it is still a wonderful composition because of the way you used the page and the ways that the colors relate to one another."

Mata Hari: See above. I believe that a foundation of great self esteem comes not only from confidence in your skills but a realization of your weaknesses and a plan for how to compensate for those weaknesses. As a parent I am learning that sometimes failing at something and simply being able to recognize that failure as an area which requires improvement are vital to giving a child a sense of wholeness and well-being. Too often children are paralyzed by the fear of not succeeding. They often equate failure with the "end-of-the-world" type of calamity.

Obviously, failure should not be greeted with denegration or anything which interferes with a child's ability to feel good about themselves. But failure should be met honestly as well -- whether it is the simple recognition that additional assistance is necessary, that not enough preparation or poor planning are to blame, or that other factors need to be addressed to achieve success -- and kids should have a realistic idea of how they can remediate a situation which warrants it.

As both a teacher and a parent, I view tests/assignments/tasks as measuring sticks to evaluate how much information/skills the child/student has absorbed. In the grand scheme of things, the grade/project/skill (at that moment) is meaningless. It is the pursuit of knowledge and the application of the knowlege which may (or may not) have worth. And sometimes the victories most cherished are not the ones which come easiest, but the ones which were earned through blood, sweat and tears....

But have veered somewhat off topic. (Sorry, babe!)

Posted by: zahava | Oct 31, 2005 3:13:07 PM

I totally agree that praising the effort involved is the way to go. My kids, as well, are talented in different arenas. And they sometimes come home with vastly different grades on report card day. However, the kid with the A- didn't necessarily work as hard to get that grade as the kid with the B. So praise for the grade itself will accomplish nothing. If I say to them, "good job!" I know you worked hard for that." Then I find that they feel praised, but the results are not as much at issue.
With regards to the refrigerator door issue, my attitude is that if THEY feel it's worthy of the refrigerator door, then it goes up.

Posted by: orthomom | Oct 31, 2005 3:38:21 PM

I think kids need to be encouraged in everything they do, especially if they are putting forth a lot of effort. At some point they will gravitate more towards the things they are better at.

Posted by: Essie | Oct 31, 2005 3:58:33 PM

recently, I was given a book entitled "Nurtured by Love." This is the account of Shinichi Suzuki and how he came to formulate his approach to music education. ( it is available on Amazon). Nevertheless, it is a fascinating read. Where he points out that ALL children/people have some innate talent, and all that is required ( which is asking alot) is nurturing that ability in the proper enviroment. Granted this isnt exaclty your dilemma, but he points out that nurturing a specific talent in the proper way leads to other , lesser talents blossoming as a childs confidence grows. i guess it is sort of tkaing advantage of what is available and then reaping the fruits which might be many.
As an aside, when I worked at HASC ( in my other lifetime) there was a group of Satmar Autistic kids from Monroe ,NY who were for all intents and purposes "Not focused" ( I hope that is P.C. enough.) yet all were very talented violinists and cellists. They were part of a program which trained them in Suzuki methods, which had the added benefit of increasing their verbal accuity. kind of neat.
( i think the book was published in 1983 )

Posted by: shabtai | Oct 31, 2005 4:12:01 PM

Ok, so I called my father (didn't realize it was actually 6 AM there, but he didn't mind.)

I imagine if it wasn't done over a phone call my notations would have been more clear, but I think he brought up some important points. So here goes:

I would not try to judge their creative work. If they're enjoying it - what difference does it make if it's good or bad? They're not doing it to be judged.

You need to find out if they're doing it because they like it, it's fun or because they want to get praise, get on the door. If the latter is the case - they need to stop putting them on the door. You need to encourage the children to enjoy doing it. The act is important, not the product.

The kids don't need to learn how to do the things better. If they wan't to know how to do it better, they'll ask.

Creative expression is meant to be be fun, not meant to win.

Competition between kids is natural, don't foster it, just stay out of it.

There's no winner or loser in art, so don't have a contest.

Posted by: Dave | Oct 31, 2005 4:31:22 PM

Zahava - I've heard/read about that stuff too - but my feeling is, exercise common sense and everything within reason. Of course I'm assuming a modicum of intelligence and intuition and just plain knowing your kids. I'm not saying you should tell your kid he's ready for the major leagues if he can't hit a ball.

Posted by: mata hari | Oct 31, 2005 4:37:28 PM

Dave... "Many studies show that praise can actually harm children's self-esteem. And that is certainly true when it comes to creative activities like art and music". I'm not saying this isn't true... but I am saying that it is completely counter intuitive. Why would praising a child hurt their self-esteem? As to the subject at hand, I'm not worried about praising wither of them... I want to know how (and when) to tell them that something they've done isn't as good as they might think it is.

Mata Hari... OK, but what happens when they get to more competitive levels of school... the army... college... work... and they find out that what their parents have been telling them is excellent is really just mediocre when compared with what other people are doing. Will they think we did them a disservice by not being honest with them and steering them towards areas where they really showed talent?

Steve... So you advocate letting them figure it out for themselves? I feel like that's what we've been doing to this point and they aren't choosing a direction yet. This issue of direction cuts to the heart of what has me worried. Here in Israel kids have to figure out much sooner 'what they want to be when they grow up'. Many high schools are geared towards certain types of careers, and you have to declare a major in college before you even begin studying! I want my kids to know what they're good at... and what they should leave for someone else.

Zahava... Competitive? Our kids??? Pshaw!

Orthomom... I agree with what you said about making a bigger deal over the kid who struggled to get the B than the kid who surfed to an easy A. But there is a contextual issue to consider: One of the dirty secrets of the otherwise excellent educational system here in Israel is that they don't push every kid to be excellent. Somebody has to sweep the streets and drive the taxis. Somebody has to fix the cars and drive the trucks. My point is that the education system is based on actual accomplishment, not just effort. Those the get the better grades get the better packages in the army... get accepted to university... get the better (by Jewish diaspora standards) jobs. At what age do I treat my kids to a dose of this reality so they can make some difficult personal choices and pursue what they are good at?

Essie... See my comment to Orthomom. What if 'at some time' doesn't arrive soon enough. What if my kids get so accustomed to praise that they can't process constructive criticism from teachers, officers and bosses?

Shabtai... having been classically trained on trombone I have never understood the Suzuki method. This isn't to say that it isn't successful (it obviously has quite a following), but still, according to what you've written there needs to be some basic talent to be nurtured. What if the talent you are nurturing is a relatively small one, and by spending time on this small talent you allow a much larger talent to remain undeveloped to its full potential? Think I'm obsessing a bit here? :-)

Dave (updated after your conversation with your dad)... I like what your father had to add to the discussion. It makes sense to try to figure out if they actually enjoy what they are doing as opposed to just enjoying the praise they get for doing it (or the thrill of seeing their work publicly praised/displayed). But I used the refrigerater illustration as a metaphor for all the things they are doing these days. They are both at an age where high school is just a few years away and I don't get a sense that either of them are starting to become focused in a particular direction. If they don't have a preference for math or art or science or sports, that's OK. But I worry that by praising them for all of their efforts/successes we might be making it hard for them to realize where their true talents lie.

Posted by: David | Oct 31, 2005 4:57:06 PM

Anyone who thinks there's no harm in overpraising kids when they don't deserve it, has never seen the American Idol auditions. ;o)

Posted by: Tanya | Oct 31, 2005 5:27:30 PM

It is a fine line. My children are competitive with each other, but at this point it is just for attention.

However, I remember the competition between my middle sister and my self quite well. She is only two years behind me so there was a lot of time spent in the same schools and with the same teachers.

I don't remember when it happened, but I do remember my father telling me that my sister was a better student then I was and that if I wanted to have similar grades I needed to try harder.

It is not a bad memory and I don't have any negative associations with it. I think that he said it somewhere around junior high and I think that he said something about me being better at other things, but I don't recall.

Not very helpful, but add it to the mix of experiences in the comments.

Posted by: Jack | Oct 31, 2005 5:41:19 PM

Z and D - no one ever said parenting was an easy job. you know you're gonna have to shell out money for therapy anyway :)
guaranteed that your kids will complain about you whether you underpraise them, overpraise them or manage expectations appropriately.

Posted by: mata hari | Oct 31, 2005 6:14:23 PM

David, why not let your kids decide which of their 2D artwork is refrigerator-worthy? No more than one piece/day. You don't need to provide any editorial commentary other than thanking them for their efforts. We also keep family photos on the fridge door. YOu can change them as frequently as you like and let the kids make the "collage" along with their artwork.If the kids have more work that they want displayed, string a "clothesline" in their room and let them clip their stuff to it.

Posted by: Helene | Oct 31, 2005 7:27:00 PM

oy. With kids... who is to say what is right or wrong (well... not in the grand scheme of teaching right and wrong - I am refering specifically to your discussion above.)
Every kid, every situation, every day, every moment is different. What is right on one case is not in another. What works for one kid may not for another. What you say today may light the way for a long path, say the same thing tomorrow and the light may die out.
Thats what makes parenting so wonderfully rewarding as well as so fantastically frustrating. Read all the books... they each have different advice. Ha!

Posted by: lisa | Oct 31, 2005 7:40:49 PM

Well, I guess the question interested my dad, because he just called me back with a few more thoughts (in a cab on the way to the airport!):

He recommends instead of the fridge, where you decide what goes up, have a bulletin board where they pick what to display.

Praise them for their effort not for their results.

Encourage them to do two things - try hard, and enjoy it. Don't worry about the results. They can always feel proud of trying. They will never be good at everything.

Let the kids decide what direction to take. Many times you'll do better at something you're interested in than something you might be talented at. In any case, people don't enjoy doing things they're not succesful at, so in the end it will work itself out.

It's important that they're interested in feedback, won't help if they're not.

If you need to give feedback, focus on facts instead of opinion. Say that "the picture needs more red", not "it's not colorful enough". Say that "you played the wrong note", not "it doesn't sound right".

As far as your question: "Why would praising a child hurt their self-esteem?" The answer is that by making a child dependent on external praise, his intrinsic motivation declines, which hurts him in the future.

While it's not identical to my father's approach, I recommend you read (and I can lend you) Alfie Kohn's Punished By Rewards. ( http://www.alfiekohn.org/books/pbr.htm ). You might not agree with all of his conclusions, but it's a fascinating read.

Posted by: Dave | Oct 31, 2005 7:55:59 PM

While all 4 kids get general praise, I try to save the more intense/serious praise for private conversations. Then the kids know it is truly special as opposed to when I give a basic 'great job' type of response. That way they have a chance to express what it is they like about what they did.
We expect our kids to get good grade in every subject and talented in every area but I don't know any adults who are good at everything.

BTW I have been enjoying your blog for a few months even though it's my first post. It's almost as good as being in Israel. Thanks.

Posted by: Chedva | Oct 31, 2005 8:09:41 PM

David - Your kids are fairly young, right? At what age do they have to be certain about what skills they want to pursue?

I suppose I am saying 'let them figure it out' for the next few years. But you know, free advice & all that....

Posted by: Steve Bogner | Oct 31, 2005 8:53:25 PM

WOW -- what an amazingly literal crowd! Guess it's my relationship with the author which lead me to understand the bigger picture (not meant as a pun, and certainly not intended for posting on the fridge!) that he was trying to paint was that of the issues involved in his two examples, and not limited by those examples.

Hmmm... according to Faber and Mazlish, I guess I should say something like "Honey, I really enjoyed your post for today! You discussed several things I've been thinking about lately, and gave me the ability to see them in a new light. However, as many of your readership has never heard you actually speak (voice tone and body language and all), I am not sure that they will understand the more nuanced undertones of your discussion...."

Posted by: zahava | Oct 31, 2005 9:47:36 PM

Speaking as an education professional.... It is a very good idea to take a huge interest in whatever your children do, and to try and tap into their sense of what their best efforts are. It is not a good idea to give huge praise for work scrappily done, either for teachers or parents. But you can get into a dialogue...my daughter and I still have a pet phrase where we recognise that something was less than our best: needs work....

But it's also a good idea to be sensitive to children's self esteem, and recognise that they don't always think highly enough of themselves or their best work.

So you can talk with them about what they were trying to do, or things that you like.

And you can say things like, that's so interesting...tell me what you were trying to do here....how did you feel it turned out...etc.

There should always be something you can find to praise, even if it means something else instead of the piece of work that wasn't done with their usual care...

Posted by: Judy | Oct 31, 2005 10:06:40 PM

It's an interesting question. My two stepkids have very different areas of excellence. My stepson has a singing voice that is so beautiful it will surely break some hearts someday. But my stepdaughter also loves to sing. He's gone to choir auditions and done very well; she's gone to choir auditions and done... not so well. As another commenter said, the real world inevitably lets them know where they stand. At home, both have been encouraged to sing. And praised, to a degree, at least for the effort they both put into it.

They are *very* competitive and whatever one does the other will try. If child A writes a novel, child B will write a novel. Child A may have some real writing talent, while Child B does not. But in undergoing the task of writing, Child B's writing skills do improve considerably. I think a parent can commend both for their efforts. (You think I'm kidding about the novel, but I'm not. Darn genius kids. They'll be published before I am.)

Posted by: mirty | Nov 1, 2005 12:20:23 AM

Children can spot false praise a mile away, which can cause them to doubt their abilities and discount sincere praise (if I am praised for something I know I am not good at, does the praise for what I am good at mean anything?).

Kids come to realize pretty quickly what they are good at, simply by comparing themselves to others. They don't have to excel at something to enjoy it. Encouraging pursuit of what they enjoy without offering false praise sounds like a good way to go.

Plus, from what Zahava said, it sounds like each of the kids has talent in art, just in different areas. You could encourage those strengths, find what is truly praiseworthy within the work to single out for praise. They will sense the integrity and focus on what they do best.

If all else fails, you could stick to only posting assorted flotsam/jetsam on the fridge. Everyone is equally talented in flotsam/jetsam.

Posted by: mcaryeh | Nov 1, 2005 12:37:36 AM

Just be happy that they care what you think and want your praise. The time will come when they find other people's opinions more important...

Posted by: psychotoddler | Nov 1, 2005 1:02:12 AM

Psychotoddler: don't think for a red-hot minute that the knowledge that our approval value will sink as the value of their friends' approval soars hasn't already arrived! I suspect that this knowledge, as well as it's ever-encroaching reality are at the root of this post! There is already evidence of our waning influence....

Posted by: zahava | Nov 1, 2005 1:17:20 AM

Here is my advice. Raise Ariella to be a music critic, Gilad to be an art critic, and Yonah to be a psychiatrist. As long as they stick together they will never go hungry.

Posted by: Alan T | Nov 1, 2005 2:00:00 AM

I think it's important to enoucrage children both in the activities they are talented at, and at the activities they simply enjoy. After all, most of us grow up to have both jobs (hopefully related to the things we were good at) and hobbies (the activites we continue to enjoy).

Children are smart enough to know where their true strengths lie, and I think most will follow their talents naturally.

Posted by: zemirah | Nov 1, 2005 7:12:26 AM

I don't have time to comment, really, work is stressful. But I am so grateful for the dialogue here and am printing out all to read on the bus tonight. Am in the situation where a soon to be 6 year old girl has the tendency to give up very easily when what she is trying to do doesn't come easily. Although I have tried to praise effort, I am a stickler myself about the results of what I do... I think she has (imagine that...) learned from my example, not my praise... Although, I don't give up easily, but I am focused on the outcome of my efforts. And I fear that she has decided if the outcome isn't looking too good, she shouldn't spend the time. Am struggling to figure out how to turn this around...

Posted by: nrg | Nov 1, 2005 12:49:39 PM

Tanya... If it's OK with everyone else, I'm going to have to award you the 'funniest comment of the week' prize! It's even funnier when you stop to think about how true it is. Thanks.

Jack... With all the fighting I did with my parents throughout my school career I honestly don't remember them telling me I wasn't good at something (or even that I was better at one thing than another). It doesn't seem to have held you back (based on what I know about you and the fact that it didn't make much of an impression on you). Thanks.

Mata Hari... Oh yeah... several years (each) on the couch for sure.

Helene... It's not just about the fridge (I was sort of using that as a metaphor for praise/validation). They are 10 and 11 respectively and are fast approaching the age where their decisions about how and where to concentrate their energies will have a big impact on their future.

Lisa... Very cut... ambiguous advice from the mother of a teenager who goes to school with full-body paint jobs. :-) I still giggle when I think about those pictures of Ferris.

Dave... I'd like to borrow that book if you wouldn't mind. From your description it sounds like I won't agree with some of his ideas... but right now I'm (we're) sort of making it up as we go along, so not much to lose.

Chedva... I like the idea of saving lavish praise for private moments. We've sort of been doing that... but for other reasons. One of the kids is a much better student than the other (nothing to do with smarts) and we are trying to spare feelings. By the way, nice to know you've joined your husband in this great experiment in time-wastage called treppenwitz.

Steve... If I didn't want the free advice I wouldn't have asked. :-) They are 10 and 11 respectively.

Judy... 'Needs work' (or similar phrases) are often employed in our household. I hope I haven't given the impression that we don't criticize our kids (we do). It's just that on some things there is ego invested in what they are doing so it makes it harder. Thanks for adding your professional input.

Mirty... What you're describing is very close to what we have here. As you say, one would write a novel if the other one did. My issue is with the idea that the one who is not really cut out for creative writing (to use your example) will have invested valuable time that could have been used to perfect one of his/her real talents/strong suits.

Mcaryeh... I majored in flotsam/jetsam! :)

Psychotoddler... As Zahava already answered, that day is already upon us.

Alan T... If I hadn't already given out this week's award to Tanya, you would have been a shoe-in! :-)

Zemirah... I agree, but I'm starting to get worried because neither kid is showing signs of differentiating between hobbies and things that they will need to get a job (one day).

nrg... I am always blown away by the wealth of information the readers here are willing to share. Granted a lot of it is speculation and guesswork... but that's really what we do as parents anyway so what the heck, right? Enjoy your reading.

Posted by: David | Nov 1, 2005 5:08:49 PM

I don't think it's ever time wasted in these pursuits. I remember following my older sister into a swamp to collect insects and plants -- her interest, not mine! Later, I drew detailed illustrations of plants while she did experiments and wrote up the results. Then I proofread her writing for punctuation, spelling and style errors. We had reached a (momentary) harmony where our talents and interests complemented each other.

Posted by: mirty | Nov 1, 2005 10:06:17 PM

This reminds me of the song "On the Other Shore" by the Austin Lounge Lizards, particularly the last refrain: "On the other shore, on the other shore/We'll find National Geographics from 1974/Our children's art will cover God's refrigerator door/We'll meet all our possessions on the other shore."

A tangent, yes ... but still a nice song.

Posted by: Rahel | Nov 2, 2005 11:38:29 AM

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