Are you suspicious of praise? Do you wonder what people want from you when they give it?
I have struggled with both sides of judgment all my life. Praise is a form of judgment when someone withholds it. Praise can be judgment when someone gives it.
Many of us seek praise our entire lives, including me. We want our parents to approve of us. We want our teachers and employers to approve of us. We want our peers to approve of us. I work hard to avoid judging others. I had even considered certain forms of praise to be judgmental. However, an event with my writer’s group became a catalyst that sent me down a rabbit hole thinking of all the times I handed out empty praise, all the times I had judged without realizing it.
There is a better way. What if we become mirrors for each other instead. This is what I have learned.
Imagine this. A student sits in front of me offering a precious piece of writing. I silently read it, make a few marks on the paper, and say, “This is very well done,” and then cheerfully stick a star at the top and hand it back to the student.
However, I remember one student in particular to whom I gave stars and stickers because that student gave 120% with every assignment even though the academic excellence was never more than middle-level competence. According to academic standards, that student was earning a solid C grade, which was not a bad thing. The student and the parent had different ideas. They wondered why, when I handed out so many stars and stickers, the student still got C’s instead of A’s for exemplary work. I explained I was giving rewards for effort not for ability. The student’s score was a fair grade of middle-level competence.
I felt guilty when I had the conversation. I felt doubly guilty as I remembered it. This student and parent equated encouraging rewards for effort as indication of expected grade, and I failed to be honest.
For that student I was a lazy teacher. I rarely found work to mirror back to her but she worked so hard. I used stars to encourage her. It was quick, it was easy, it was effective, and teachers, at least in this country, had been doing it as a reward system for generations of students. But was it honest? Was it fair?
Stars rewarded effort, not academic strength. Would it have been kinder to explain honestly that hard work kept the abyss of failure away, but top-level success was not happening? At the very least, I could have looked for something of worth to give back besides stars.
So, imagine that same student sitting in front of me with a precious piece of writing to offer. I look at the piece, and in spite of spelling and grammatical errors, I read it to her with emotion and heartfelt meaning, offering the beauty and strength of her own words as a gift of how powerful in that moment she had been. In essence, I become a mirror. How much more could that student have learned from hearing what she offered, rather than receiving a simple star stuck to the top of the page?
Stars and stickers are hollow praise when given without mirrored feedback.
I belong to a writers group that meets once per week. We respond to prompts then share what we write. We have written together for eight years, happily congratulating each other on superb writing and generally emoting our appreciation with the intent to support each other to improve our craft. Somewhere in that time, I said to one of the writers, “Oh, that’s a keeper, give it a star.” The idea of gesturing, “Give it a star,” caught on and became a regular feature of responding to each other’s offerings of extemporaneous writing.
Three weeks ago, one of our moderators experimented with the concept of being ‘silent witnesses’ for each other. The intent was to offer a time to listen to each other, and allow a safe space for each writer to sit with her own writing and her own feelings about it. We all thought it was a great idea so we did it while not fully understanding the need to do so.
For me, it was an unnerving event. The experience of reading my own writing aloud was something I’d never done before joining this group, and the keys to my experience were physical and vocal appreciation.
That night, as fellow writers read their work, I struggled to stay silent, to listen without emotional response and outpour. I had to sit on my hands to avoid giving silent applause or “stars.” I felt…not badly, but certainly that something was missing from my experience of this writers group.
At the end of the meeting, we debriefed. My turmoil began.
I learned that my need to praise my fellow writers had offended more than one of them. Awarding stars was playful for me but had been a system of judgment for them. They felt that when they received a star it was like getting a grade in school, and if they didn’t get a star they had failed somehow. They also felt compared with other writers because not every person got a star each week. We gave stars for exquisite writing, and it’s impossible to achieve that every time.
Of course, none of us were actually judging writer against writer. The intent was to let an individual know that yes, that piece of writing is worth keeping. Please consider it. However, they forced me to look at stars as rewards that night, and I realized how lazy I had become. Pandora’s Box opened at that Zoom meeting. I felt horror, caught in the act of judging others.
As a teacher, I did give stars, but I also honed my craft of mirroring. I have spent a lifetime honing it, offering a mirror so that others could see the beauty and wonder that I see, and now I am reduced to handing out stars? Oh. I think not.
I thought about the times I refused to read my writing, because I did not want comments about it. Why? Because I didn’t want it judged. Yet, I had been handing out stars and gratefully accepting them when I shared my writing. That’s when I voiced to my fellow writers that, because there were no comments allowed that particular night, I felt comfortable not only writing more completely from my own heart instead of writing something safe and acceptable, but also sharing it afterward.
I left the meeting that night thinking about how ashamed I was at becoming lazy with praise instead of practicing the mirroring I knew how to do. Most of our group had no idea that some of us felt judged this entire time. We were horrified to discover that simple encouragement could feel like judgment. This exercise of silent witness brought it to light. My solution for the writing group when we finally meet in person again instead of on Zoom, is to suggest a trade. Instead of reading our own work, we pass our writing to another to read for us. In that way, we can be powerful mirrors for one another.
Both the incident with a student and the incident with the writer’s group were unfortunate because I know that mirroring is the best answer. Reward is compensation for effort, an exchange of energy, but is it a fair exchange? Is it an honest exchange? Is it a heartfelt exchange? Would it be better to take more time to act as compassionate mirrors for each other? I handed out stars to my fellow writers instead of handing them their words.
Stars are a judgment, more for the ease of the giver than the receiver. They are a simple, uninvolved way to give praise. But praise is hollow and meaningless at the very least and at the worst, a harsh judgment. Is it enough to say, “Job well done?” In my experience, no – no it is not enough. It is better to be a mirror than dole out empty praise.
I know this works.
When my children were younger, they each had a rabbit project with the local 4-H club. They were normal kids. I had to badger them daily to take care of their responsibilities. However, badgering was not my parenting style. I considered setting up a calendar with stars to commend them for all the times I didn’t have to remind them of daily chores. It was an easy, expedient solution. But it wasn’t my solution.
Instead, I bought my own herd of rabbits, set up my own cages, and started my own business. I mirrored what responsibility for an animal looked like. I mirrored the time it took. I mirrored consistency in care giving. I mirrored filling out records, keeping track of expenses. I never had to say a word to them. They just did what I did. They followed me down to the rabbitry every time I went there and took care of their own rabbits. They each had successful projects that turned into businesses, and I became the parent I wanted to be, one that didn’t have to badger, judge, or give hollow praise. I became a parent who didn’t give stars. I want to be a member of a writer’s group that doesn’t give stars. As a teacher, as a grandparent, as a friend, I won’t give stars again.
What do you think about this idea of stars? Please feel free to comment or to share any experiences you have had with stars given as rewards.