Praise and Blame:
Confidence as a House of Cards
A runner wins a series of marathons. He is at the top of his game
and filled with confidence. The next day he is struck by a car and
loses one leg. He falls into hopelessness and never again wants
to be seen. Another athlete, a cyclist, is winning races and leading
his team to victory. One day he falls from a ledge, breaks his back
and becomes a paraplegic. As soon as he can navigate his wheel chair, he begins to recruit children in the ghetto to train them to be
champion racers. He works with them six days a week, on studies
and social skills as well as cycling. Many go on to win titles -
most head off into the world as I can people.
all understand, even empathize with the desire to crawl away - but
do we want to? What made the cyclist get up and keep giving? What
made him want to rejoin life?
Real confidence springs naturally from the sacred connection,
- the experience of alive that runs through each of us
and all life, joining us to the unconditional web. In this
place it is the process of learning and growing and loving that
feeds us. Conversely, all confidence based on accomplishment, gifts,
and approval is conditional. It rests on one-upping
being better than another. Whether we have a tragic
accident or not, confidence based on accomplishment or approval
will eventually tumble like a house of cards.
One clear experience of this came for me when I had been the
class teacher for a group of children for five years. Over that
time, I had watched them grow and guided them through many a crisis,
and many a great success. We would soon be parting ways, and I knew
the upcoming Inter-Scholastic Olympic Games were not only important to the children,
but also offered some very important opportunities for the process
of closing our time together. For this reason, I asked the class
to help me choose which two children would act as torch bearers
for the inter-scholastic Olympic Ceremony. Two students from the
host school (we were host to five other schools this year), would
hold a real, flaming torch and open the ceremony by running the
field with it. From there, all students would participate in traditional
Olympic events including the javelin, discus, and long jump contests.
The question of who would be a torch bearer was a big one.
In order to encourage responsible participation, but discourage
social manipulations (of which we certainly had our share), I did
not ask the students to pick individual children, but rather asked
that they join me in working together to make a list of the qualities we would like
to see in the torch bearers.
All of the students were very enthusiastic about this project.
They quickly jumped in and began listing many different qualities.
sportsmanship. Good athletes. Nice to everyone. Helped set up the
games. And on went the list. But for each time any child brought
up a quality, another child would point out that that criteria
make someone else feel bad - even if that very criteria might land
the child speaking the position! It seemed that no matter what
the students came up with, they were all - even the child making
the suggestion - very quick to see that any choice of qualities
was a judgment of value. They were very clear that was not what
they wanted this last major adventure together to be about.
I just sat and listened, very happy to hear the thread of understanding
and compassion that ran through these children. But after about
10 minutes of having every idea presented get unanimously
I began to wonder how we could possibly come up with the way to
make a choice. In a somewhat exasperated manner, I said to the
"Well, if you dont want to decide on any criteria, how are we
going to choose? "
The children sat quietly for about a minute. They looked quite perplexed.
Then one little girl, Sarah, looked up and said, "Why can't
you do what you always do? Choose by what we need." Suddenly
life came back into all the children and all 23 nodded in agreement,
confident that they had solved the problem.
How had Sarah come up with this unlikely solution for a ten year old? Over the years Sarah had faced many struggles, in her personal
life, with her peers, and academically. For each one she faced,we
had worked together so that she could do her best and feel the power
and inspiration of her own strength. Sometimes through her pouting,
sometimes through her tears, sometimes through her exuberant determination,
she faced down many demons. And she had watched each child in
the class undergo that same process. Although the choices I made for
each child, the precise things I asked of each child, were often
quite different - and some hit the mark while others fell flat, or worse - they
were indeed, as she had just pointed out so clearly, based on what
I felt that child needed. Fairness had never been confused with
evenness or sameness, nor was it about content. Rather, fair had
always meant the focus was on meeting each child's needs. Still, I had
never spoken to them about making choices based on need or well
being, so I was both surprised and delighted to see how deeply they
had taken in this learning, and how adept they were applying it
and articulating it when needed.
This was not about competing. It was not about counting because
you were better than someone else. It was not about doing. It was
about being, and belonging.
On this occasion, the children were actually a step ahead of me.
I had come in expecting to navigate a competitive situation and
find a positive way through it. That was the teaching I had planned
for this day. I was somewhat stunned by the depth of their internal
understanding and sense of healthy priorities. So stumbling along,
a step behind the class, I said, "All right I will decide based on
need. But if anyone has any qualities they would like me to consider,
please write them down on a piece of paper, fold it, and leave it
in my basket. Don't give me any names just give the qualities if
you come up with any ideas before the end of the day."
I left the issue there, marveling at the depth of these young people.
At the end of the day there were six or eight little notes in my
basket. As I looked at the notes I discovered that every child had
written down a name, none had written down a quality. AND they had
all written down one of two names: the names of the two children
who would be leaving us at the end of the year after five years
together. All had the same criteria; none had the words to articulate
it. The criteria was belonging.
The children had a just displayed for me the real seat of confidence.
Here was a situation that invited competition. It invited one-upsmanship
and false pride. It invited social manipulations. And, in truth,
I came in expecting all this and hoping I could lead the children
through to a healthy resolution, one that connected them with their
inherent value. That, after all, was the point of doing it! Yet
that is not what happened. Over the five years that I spent with
these children, each child experienced many different levels of
confidence, pride, and arrogance. And each had experienced many different levels of isolation,
shame, and not belonging. They struggled like all children struggle,
like all of us struggle. There were times my guidance was right on the mark
and was able to lead them through difficulty to the wisdom
of their own hearts. And there were times when I missed by a mile,
and fostered the very negativity, arrogance, and isolation I was
seeking to heal. But in all those struggles there was always one
focus, one goal: for each child to experience again and again his
own unconditional place in the web of life. This connection happened,
I knew, when the child experienced the power of his own learning -
whether he was top or bottom of the class - and the treasure of his
own growth - whether he was fastest or slowest. Sarah had so neatly
summed up what might appear to be very complex approach to teaching,
in one simple statement, "Do what you always do. Choose by
what we need. What I got to witness in this one moment, was
that deep in their beings, these students knew a confidence based simply on
being alive. They knew the confidence of belonging. And for them,
when push came to shove, it was indeed home-base.
Unconditional confidence and unconditional belonging are two
aspects of one whole. Experiences of either one will nurture
the other. Yet, the vast majority of us, parents, teachers, and
counselors, inadvertently and unwittingly feed the child's sense
that he must "earn" his place in life. Whether we praise
or blame the child, we tell him that his place is conditional, dependent,
As both parent and teacher, I know that we can't help but wonder:
if we don't praise or blame the children how will they know what's
expected? How will we support them and show them they are loved?
How will we encourage them to do their best? Jean Piaget writes
extensively about this. He describes the natural processes of growing
and learning as the forces which, when uninterrupted, are self-nourishing and life affirming.
Piaget describes the learning process as one of constant movement
from the known and safe to the unknown challenge. Once tackled,
the unknown becomes the known and the process begins again. The
experience, and not the outcome, of that process is the seat of
both joy and confidence. It is the door to belonging because no
matter who we are or what happens to us, we can always grow and
Think of watching an infant learn to walk. He begins in a very balanced
state, crawling freely. There is no danger of falling. He can get
into anything he wants while crawling (all parents know this),
yet something deep within propels him to move into unknown and initially
dangerous territory: the vertical plane. As he begins to stand unaided,
there are many falls. It is a constant and literal struggle with
equilibrium. But it is his struggle. Imagine giving an infant
gold stars for each step he took, or reprimanding him when he falls!
We know and respect that this desire and this delight come from
an inner drive. Finally, he masters walking and this becomes the
place of balance, the new ground, and from here he will seek out
the next challenge. He will naturally seek the uncertainty of the
unknown as fuel for the next growth - such is our human make-up.
This process, the actual experience and energy of moving
from balance to imbalance and back to balance, in and of itself,
connects us to the world and fosters unconditional confidence. When
our attention is on this process, when our allegiance is to "learning, rather than to "knowing, it is by definition non-competitive.
It does not matter where on some external scale anyone may lie.
Whether we're dealing with the most difficult academic material,
complex social issues, tortured emotional issues, or taking a walk
in the park, the process is the same. From the most competent, brightest,
smartest, to the "slow learner, or mentally challenged,
the process is the same. With our allegiance held to that process
we can continually foster an unconditional confidence and a sense
I am not suggesting that we never delight in what our children accomplish, and never hold them to clear expectations. But as a culture we have fallen
into a pattern that, I believe, stems from experiments with Pavlov's
dogs and Skinner's pigeons. It is one that believes that the motivation
to improve is a response to external stimuli. It assumes that there is no basic heart in us, or
that the force of growth is weak and vulnerable. This, I wholeheartedly
do not believe.
is primarily an expression of doubt in our own inherent value. It expresses
a belief in a basically bad inherent nature. It traps
us into moving ever further from our own wisdom and joy. I have
never seen it bring health or delight - just obedience. It is certainly
never how I have experienced delight myself.
It is true that one will often get faster results using external
stimuli. But these results will be superficial and short-lived;
they usually have a very negative kick back. This negative kick
back is an expression of the child's innate health and wisdom. It
is his way of saying "No!" It is his way of saying, "There
is far more to me then performing as a trained seal." Over
the years, I have seen many people use the external stimuli approach, from
the very simple erasing of names on the blackboard when a child
improves his behavior, to the rather extreme use of a gold stars
for every positive move for child makes. In each case, I have only
seen this kind of motivation lead children, and indeed adults, away
from their own hearts, away from their own wisdom, away from their
own vitality. In the end it backfires anyway. At best, it is confidence
as a house of cards - it cannot help but topple. At worst, it is
no different from slavery - confidence built on the oppression of
How can we help activate the natural passion for growth, for learning?
Simply and slowly. When you feel delight, share delight. Sharing
delight is quite different from dispensing praise. When we catch
sight of shooting stars streaming across the skies, we delight.
It would never occur to us to start saying, "What a great star
you are. You did that so well!" Rather we simply delight in
the delightful. We all know this feeling. When we delight in a shooting
star, that delight has no hidden agenda. We are not looking to inspire
that star, or others, to do it again! We are not making that star
feel better, or know it is valued. We are not looking to teach the
star something. We just delight because IT IS. And when there
is a living being to receive that delight, it is deeply empowering.
Because we delight in what is, we help connect the child to what
is - and this is the seat of real confidence.
It is also important to move slowly in sharing the delight, so we
do not distract the child from his own experience of his delight,
his inner sparkle. It is a great help if we stop to question just
what it is were delighting in. Is it what has been accomplished,
or is it in the process of accomplishment? Is this childs
struggle to discover his own way valued at least as much as the
fastest road to the correct answer? What about the child facing
an enormous struggle with courage? Is he delighted in as much as
a child who gets to the top quickly? On the whole, we certainly
need to bring a greater awareness and more care to our "sharing
of delight, but there is plenty of room for, and need for,
that simple sharing.
At he same time, children need us to hold them accountable to doing
their best. Certainly boundaries are needed and expectations must
be held. But here too, there is a great deal of difference between
setting and communicating expectations, and either luring the
forward or humiliating him to get there. It is the difference between
helping a child see a mountain before him which must be climbed,
and standing with a carrot on a stick or a whip in hand. Positive
setting of expectations is matter-of-fact and straight forward
has nothing whatsoever to do with the childs innate value.
In my work with children, both in classrooms and at home, I have
found it very helpful to hold an image of a situation in which
experience the kind of feeling I wish to communicate, whether that
is the delight at seeing a shooting star, or the exhilaration of
climbing a mountain. I know that feeling. I know when that is what
I am feeling. I know when it is not. Do I make mistakes? Do I use
praise to manipulate and control? Do I get frustrated on the way
up the mountain? Do I fall into old patterns. Yes. Although I have
understood this principle for a very, very long time, and have
intensively to live it, I still fall. Some days I doubt my own
power and look outside for control. Some days I fear parent feedback.
Some days I am tired or stressed, and I fall into the old patterns
again. So what is different? What is different is that I recognize
it quickly. I feel how far I have come from delighting in the shooting
star. I let it go and move on. It becomes what we in the Enki teaching
program call an oops moment. We all have them; all we
can do is notice them, recognize the impact, and let them go. Then
we can move on afresh, instead of building theories and reasons
founded on justifying our mistakes.
In the great majority of schools and homes in the Western culture,
whether inadvertently or intentionally, we train our children to
look for outside markers of accomplishment, and worse yet, proof
of value. We train them away from their internal motivation, and
away from their internal joy. Sadly, I have seen this all too often.
Take Melany for example. Melany, was a very neat, clean cut child,
who had been at the top of her public school class when she came
to me as a sixth grader. I knew her grades had been high and her parents
had told me that in fifth grade she had won an award for compassionate
citizenship. I expected to see an enthusiastic learner, someone
at ease with her peers and full of life.
But the child who walked in the classroom door did not have a sparkle.
Rather she seemed to look around suspiciously, judging each thing
she met, and putting it in its "proper" place. And Melany,
I would soon realize, knew the proper place for everything.
Melany knew just how each person in the class should fit. She knew
how every subject should be taught. And she certainly knew which
things were worth learning and which were beneath her! She showed
virtually no interest in meeting a new world, no open interest or
inquisitiveness at all. She wanted the world exactly as she had
known it, and anything different was stupid or just
wrong. I could feel the struggle within her and it made me want
to hide before she could put me in my proper place, too.
Melany insisted on already knowing whatever she was
asked to learn. This showed up most strongly in math where she was
used to being top of the class. She was used to being given formulae
into which she would place and manipulate numbers, racing her way
to be first done. To her, this proved she was smart and best, proved
others were less - and, worst of all, it proved she had value. As
I tried to get her to think on her own, the most frequent response
was, Just tell me what to do and give me the numbers. Then
I can do it right. Believing that this approach to math is
closer to what trained dogs do than to human work, and knowing that
it undermined real confidence, I asked her to explore problems and
seek solutions, often offering the use of manipulatives (objects
she could handle) until she found answers. No formulae were given.
No tricks passed on. Just the basic pieces of information for her
to handle creatively.
I knew she had the base of knowledge and the thinking capacity to
find her way through - and actually I gave her somewhat easier problems
than she was technically capable of because the process of learning
was such a strain for her. I had learned from mistakes in earlier
years: moving children too quickly from the known to the unknown
does not build confidence, but threatens safety. I knew it was a
big journey to move from filling in numbers in a provided formula
to perceiving and discovering - to real understanding. So I was taking
it slowly. At the same time, I did not feel I could let her go flying
ahead, answering questions by filling in blanks on a ground of
no understanding - I knew how hard that deck of cards would eventually
For months I worked at it with her. I tried a hundred ways to modify
the assignments so she could move forward in her thinking and her confidence without
undue shock to her system. I adjusted one thing after the next for
the whole class to make her transition easier. Melany came to like
me less and less. She complained more and more. She became ever
more controlling and eventually her color began to fade and her
shoulders to droop. Now the whole class was beginning to complain
about the active learning we had dropped (though they did not know
why). I knew this was a losing battle. This child I could not reach
and I had been down this road and decided I would face the writing on the
wall BEFORE I did real damage. I knew that, above all, I had to be
interested in her well being or there was no way for either of us
to grow and learn.
It would be a gratifying, Hollywood ending if I could say that I
found a magic elixir of gentleness and understanding that nourished
her soul. But I cant. Instead, the breakthrough came from
a much more surprising direction: giving up. Sometimes the teacher
just has to give up. Sometimes (but not always) it is the giving
up that turns the tide. In this case, I did not expect a turning
of the tides. I decided that I couldnt help this child know
a world of deep confidence, but at least she could hold on to the conditional
confidence until another opportunity to really know her gifts, and
her deep unconditional confidence, arose.
I called Melanys parents, who were well aware of her unhappiness,
and told them that my approach was just not reaching Melany, and
I would like to make a change. I said that I would no longer ask
Melany to participate in the active movement work she loathed, she
could just watch or go read in another room. I suggested that I
give Melany a textbook with explanations and formulae, and, when
I was finished setting the others up to discover, I would be happy
to answer her questions. They thought this a good idea.
The next day, feeling very relieved, I told Melany that she could
join us in movement work or go read, as she pleased. She watched
that day, a bit stunned. Then we sat down to math. I walked over
and handed her a text book with a marker on the relevant page and
said, Heres the chapter that covers what were
studying. I think you will like it. If you have any questions, I
will be happy to try to help after I get the others set. I headed
to the blackboard; she sat with gaping jaw.
I went about my business with the others. Once they were set on
their discovery work I went over to her. She asked a question. I
found the answer in the book and pointed her to it. She replied,
I read that but they dont know how to explain it.
I had to suppress a laugh as this is the same thing she had been
saying about me, and rather rudely at that! I rephrased it and she
thanked me - that was a first! Then I told her she was welcome to
join the others as much or as little as she wanted to. From that
moment on she participated eagerly and attentively. Within a week
or so she had begun to ask real thinking questions. When she was
confused, even if the others already got it, she would question
and ponder until a light went off. For the first time all year,
there was light in Melanys eyes. There was color in her cheeks.
She sought out my help and eagerly tackled the challenges I set
before her. Repeatedly, she thanked me. This was a different child.
We had only a very short time left to work together before the school
year and my time with her was over, but Melany now has an experience
of the power of her own learning. Whatever happens, nothing can
take that away. It is hers to leave behind or hers to return to.
But she now knows the sensation of confidence born of the activity
of learning - and that is hers for keeps.
More and less consciously, we all know the difference between the
confidence of accomplishing (for lack of a more accurate
word), and the confidence of being or belonging.
Feeling our place in the interconnectedness, the ecosystem of being,
is the seat of real well-being, the seat of true confidence. It
feeds on the experience of learning and growing, not on owning or
accomplishing. It feeds on experience, not on feedback. It is unconditional.
Without it, any confidence we build is only a house of cards.