He who praises everybody, praises nobody.—Samuel Johnson

Since I first heard this line of Dr. Johnson’s, I have felt the rightness of it, and even as a boy I recognized or felt the wrongness of unmerited praise. Dr. Johnson thought that people who gave praise incontinently lowered its value. Some teachers and parents may believe that while this view is true in general, an exception would surely be praise for the child with low self-esteem.

As it turns out, a study reported in Psychological Science claims that extravagant or “inflated” praise is more harmful to children with low self-esteem than to those with high self-esteem. The harm is that the unfortunate children react to the over-praise by shying away from difficult tasks afterwards. The study did not clarify for me whether the kids refused to take risks because they became anxious about losing their praiseworthy status or because they treasured the comments and would rather have them than the satisfaction of a job well done. It was also unclear from the experiment whether extravagant praise over a long period of time has a different and more beneficial effect.

My own practice as a teacher is to acknowledge progress but to make strong or extravagant praise only rarely. I don’t like to become overblown, saying such things as “you are showing such wonderful subject-verb agreement!” or “I’m thrilled that you are using paragraphs!” Using descriptions like “workmanlike” or “solid and gets the job done” strike most students as honest and reliable, though the praise-addicts among my students would rather have more and sometimes resent me because they don’t get it.

For many years I used a stamp and an inkpad for summary praise. The stamp showed a fist with an extended thumb. For good work I would stamp “one thumb up,” and for outstanding work I would stamp “two thumbs up.” Thumb-up work would be posted on a special “Good Writing!” bulletin board. Because students believed I did not “praise everybody,” they looked forward to seeing new compositions posted—their own and others’. First-time postings for students who didn’t normally “make it” usually elicited pleasure, sometimes elation: “I’ve always wanted to get on that board!” said one pleased young man.

Since I opened with Dr. Johnson, let me close with him. Of published writing he could be a severe and caustic critic. During the controversy over the “ancient” Ossian “manuscripts” “found” by James McPherson, in which Johnson claimed that McPherson had written them himself, Dr. Hugh Blair asked him whether he really thought that any man of the modern age could have written them. JOHNSON: Yes, sir. Many men, many women, and many children. But he zealously promoted writing, too[1]. And with aspiring writers who came to him with the request that he give them literary advice and criticism he was usually gentle, though not dishonest. JOHNSON: I do not say that it cannot become good writing.

This seems like the right touch. One of my students, who would dearly love an IB grade of 7 in English, but who always gets 5s and 6s, came up to me and said, “I guess there is not much chance of my getting a 7.” I replied, “I don’t want to rule it out, but it seems unlikely, though I would be happy to have you prove me wrong.”

[1] There is a wonderful story of his helping Oliver Goldsmith get out of debtor’s prison by personally peddling The Vicar of Wakefield to the London booksellers and hurrying back to Goldsmith with the payment. His inspection of the manuscript is the subject of a famous painting that you can see at Dr. Johnson’s house in London.

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