You are walking down a flight of stairs and someone standing at the bottom starts commenting on your walking. They describe what you are doing in detail. “You just put your foot in the middle of the stair,” “you are balancing really well,” and they start praising your form and speed.
Besides thinking that the person is weird, what else would happen? What would happen to your ability to walk down the stairs?
If you are like most people, you would find that the simple act of walking on stairs suddenly feels awkward. That it becomes strangely difficult. You uneasily reach for the handrail.
What is going on here? Researchers who have studied this phenomena have proposed that the reason this loss of skill occurs is that when someone points out what we are doing we experience and increase in “self-attention.”
Self-attention means we begin to take in what we are doing, to watch ourselves more closely. It also means we start judging ourselves for our performance.
Self-attention is a good thing because it helps us master new skills, but it disrupts performance when the skill is one that we have already mastered.
This is especially true if the behavior is what researchers have dubbed a “high-skill” behavior. Playing a complex musical piece, juggling many objects of different weights, free-writing an evocative story, or freestyling rhymes without breaking rhythm, all require a kind of skill that takes years to master and can crumble in an instant with too much self-attention.
Parents can inadvertently disrupt the performance of a high-skill if they praise it too much before the performance. It is ironic, but telling a child that she is an amazing piano player just before a performance is likely to impair performance.
So while it is generally a good thing to praise children, there are instances in which it is best to take a hands-off approach and allow the child to use their skills without self-attention.
It is a paradox of praise that while it can boost motivation and effort, not every skill requires more motivation or more effort. For skills that feel effortless thanks to many hours of practice, praise can get in the way.