A Little Bit of Praise


Each week, my children have swimming lessons. They are all at separate times on different days, so I get to watch lots of children swimming. And lots of parents watching their children swimming. By and large, the parents show interest in their child’s efforts and offer support and encouragement.

Not fond of shouting over the general noise of 50 or so kids and their parents, I tend to offer visual support. Giving thumbs up and big smiles when one of the children has done what was asked of them. Actually, I do this even if they couldn’t do it. I can see that they are trying their best, and that is good enough for me. Afterwards, in the car, we sometimes talk about things they found difficult – usually it’s Bean feeling like he let himself down if he didn’t quite manage something, and me telling him that he can’t let himself down if he’s trying, and he ought not to worry about not getting something right; it will come together when it comes together, as long as he keeps trying. I want the children to be confident swimmers, but I don’t want them to feel like swimming lessons are a constant test of their abilities. Generally, they have fun. They all have the same teacher, and they all adore him. He knows what’s needed – sometimes encouragement, sometimes praise, sometimes a metaphorical kick up the bum. But he never makes them feel that they aren’t good enough.

Plum, ready for her lesson

Plum’s lesson is the last one of the week for us, and I get to sit right alongside the pool, within talking distance of her. It’s useful to be able to remind her to look where she’s going, and not at me! During the last lesson though, I was less than impressed with the parent sat beside me.

It seems her child would like to move up to the next stage and to do that he has to prove that he’s ready of course. Throughout the lesson, the parent kept telling him that he needed to show his best swimming today. When she thought he wasn’t doing that, she’d call “[name] that was rubbish.”

By the end of the half hour, I don’t think he was left in any doubt that his efforts that day weren’t good enough in her eyes. When he got out of the pool, she told him that his swimming was complete rubbish today and now he couldn’t have the treat he’d been promised before the lesson. He was visibly disappointed. I have a few problems with this.

  1. He was by no means perfect, but he was doing well, and certainly better than Plum. If he was rubbish, what does that make Plum, trying her best and swimming better than she has done before?
  2. How is a child (and this class is for five and six year olds) meant to progress if every effort is met with calls of how rubbish it was? (Thankfully, both teachers were able to praise aspects of everyone’s swimming)
  3. Promising a child a treat if he performs well enough is cruel if you’re going to take it away when you decide the performance wasn’t up to scratch, especially if your assessment of the performance differs from that of the class teacher.

I just don’t see what she gains through this. This boy clearly enjoys swimming, and is good at it. He hasn’t perfected all aspects of the stroke, but none of the children in the stage have. If he is told he’s not good enough, he won’t suddenly improve, he’ll lose his love for it.

the way we talk to our children

Some of the criticism seemed to stem from the fact that he had done better when they were swimming as a family. Well, you know what? My kids all do better when they practice something on our weekly family swim and I expect it’s because they are choosing to practice it, and there’s no pressure and there aren’t eight other children watching them. It doesn’t matter if it takes them three more lessons to do the same in front of the teacher. They are learning to swim, not competing for Olympic medals, so what’s the rush?

We need to recognise when our children are making an effort, and praise that. Don’t hold back the praise until they succeed in mastering something; their spirit might be broken long before they reach that stage.

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