Praise and Blame: Confidence as a House of Cards

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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.

We can 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 that 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. Good 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 might make someone else feel bad – even if that very criteria might land the child speaking the position! It seemed that no matter what ideas 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 rejected, 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 children, “Well, if you don’t 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 I 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, vulnerable.

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 learn.

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 of belonging.

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 pigeon’s. 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.

External motivation 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 another, “one-upsmanship.”


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 we’re delighting in. Is it what has been accomplished, or is it in the process of accomplishment? Is this child’s 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 child 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 and has nothing whatsoever to do with the child’s 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 I 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 worked 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 fall.

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 can’t. 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 couldn’t 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 Melany’s 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, “Here’s the chapter that covers what we’re 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 don’t 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 Melany’s 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.