Thursday, 17 February 2011

Who needs Praise?

I’ve been reading about praise and encouragement (a.k.a ‘positive reinforcement’) in relation to children and I came across an interesting suggestion that we should only praise children for their effort and not for their talents. After all, we are born with our talents so we don’t deserve to be praised for them. Whereas we choose whether to work hard, to be persistent in the face of difficulties – or not.  

I think this makes a lot of sense and if teachers and parents made less fuss about children’s natural abilities and talents and rewarded effort instead, it would provide a level playing field which might well motivate the less ‘able’ and at least lessen the lack of confidence that besets most of the children I have taught.

But would it be sensible to apply this to adults as well - I’m thinking of artists in particular? It’s very clear from artists’ forums and blog comments that it is generally accepted that most of us need praise and encouragement about our work. If someone commented, ‘I can see that you’ve worked very hard and I think that is highly commendable’, wouldn’t we perhaps suspect an unspoken, ‘but’, such as, ‘but I don’t think your designs are up to scratch’?

So yes, when it comes to adults and their creative endeavours, the praise of our peers does support and encourage us in a fiercely competitive market! But I do think that we need to be discriminating in our praise of one another’s work to avoid our praise becoming devalued. I’m not suggesting for one moment that we should hold back from responding positively to something we really like.  But I have seen parents who, with the best of intentions, ‘positively reinforce’ every single thing that their child does – it seems as if they simply can’t stop themselves, praise seems to ooze from their every pore! And I’ve seen the way their children react – or rather, they don’t react any more because they are canny enough to know that they don’t deserve or even want this constant drip-feed of overblown admiration; so they just tune it out.

At times I’ve felt a little bit like one of those children when I read all the testimonials and wall comments on Greeting Card Universe and Zazzle. They sound very nice, and I’m sure many of them are genuine. But when they seem to come so easily, what are they really worth? Do they really mean anything? And worst of all, is there an ulterior motive hiding behind some of them?

It seems pretty clear that many of us are looking to our fellow artists for reassurance that we do indeed have enough talent to make our work saleable.  And I think this is fair enough in the beginning; but after a while we need to be able to assess our own work and find a confidence that doesn’t depend on the praise of others.  What will ultimately build our confidence is likely to be, in part at least, actually achieving those sales!  And that, by the way, may well take some of those qualities – hard work, persistence, even courage! – that are not innate talents but require effort from us!  (I had to dig very deep to find the courage to approach the owner of our local Art Shop and Gallery with my Christmas catalogue!)

Sometimes we don’t seem to be getting anywhere – this post about rejection on Terry Heath’s blog should encourage anyone who wonders whether they will ever make it!  

And that’s when the encouragement of our friends and fellow artists is worth its weight in gold!



Di said...

Good post. Seriously. Yes- we suspect the praise if it's too general and not specicific and we look for what's omitted. We are an insecure bunch. And yes sales do speak of our art being accepted and help build our confidence. But ultimately we have to be our own judge, trust ourselves. Otherwise we will forever be trying to please someone else.

Carol said...

You and I seem to read the same articles, Judy. Good post, and amen to the above post from Di. Self confidence is the only way to gain authenticity and a voice.

Ulla Hennig said...

Your blog post reminds me of a discussion on Flickr about the way people comment and should comment.
I try to avoid comments like "great picture!". Instead of that I either make a comment about the aspects I really like - the way light and shadow is distributed, or the selection of the colours or something like this. When I am at the receiving end I like encouraging comments, but I love comments which are more detailed.

Judy Adamson said...

Thank you, Di - yes, in the end I think that for most of us, the important thing is not to try to please others but to work towards pleasing ourselves. If we are lucky enough to be able to do both at the same time, that's a bonus!

Judy Adamson said...

Thank you for your comment, Carol. I think it was in a book by Raj Persaud that I came across the notion that we should be giving children credit for their effort, determination, courage rather than for their talents, which they have been 'given'.

Judy Adamson said...

Hi Ulla - thank you for giving a slightly different angle on this subject.

You've set me wondering whether the proliferation of opportunities to give and receive comments on one's artwork that the internet provides can actually get in the way of developing one's own judgement and thereby one's self confidence?

Jean said...

I do agree that children should be given praise for efforts more so than natural talents.

This is an interesting topic and I have enjoyed reading the comments.

Oh...I'm happy with any positive feedback...detailed or not. Go ahead and lie to me.:)

Judy Adamson said...

Thank you for stopping by Jean, especially as I know how busy you are!

Years ago I read somewhere that most of us need ten pieces of positive feedback to counteract one piece of negative. But I do genuinely think that your bird photos are outstandingly beautiful!

Jean said...

Thanks Judy! You have always been so encouraging.:-D)

Nicki said...

This has been an interesting article for me Judy, both as a mother and as an artist.

I love getting comments on my blog and you are right- they are almost always encouraging, and rarely, if ever, negative. And I take it all with a grain of salt. I think that when people take the time to leave a comment they are aware that there also may be potential buyers reading, so they make a comment only if they have something positive to say. I still like getting these comments because of the interaction factor the blog provides as opposed to a website. I really like it when I get a comment followed up by an email with further feedback and often in this more private context suggestions can be made for improvement.

Thanks for giving me something to think about.


Judy Adamson said...

Hi Nicki - thank you for taking the time to add your comments! And thank you, too, for making ME think!

I've just read Ulla's blog post on a similar subject over at:

What struck me about both her post and your comment is that you both refer to the usefulness of comments in the context of 'improvement'. This is something I would question because I don't believe other people can tell you how to 'improve' your art. I hope that doesn't sound arrogant - it isn't meant to be! It's about ownership of one's art and what it is 'saying'.