Communication Currents

When Praise is a Problem – Between Teachers and Parents

June 1, 2012
Instructional Communication

When interacting with another person, can the act of praising ever actually pose a problem? I have found that the answer to this question is ‘yes’, particularly during one kind of interaction – the parent-teacher conference.

In conducting three years of fieldwork in four different public and private U.S. schools, I gathered over 40 video-recorded naturally occurring parent-teacher conferences about students ranging in grade level from preschool through seventh grade. I examined these recordings in detail, collecting every time a participant praised a non-present student by making a comment that reflected favorably on that student. As a result, I have discovered that the participants themselves treat: (a) teachers’ praise of students as equivalent to compliments of parents, and (b) parents’ praise of students – their own children – as equivalent to self-praise (i.e., ‘bragging’). Although intuitively one might have predicted the action of praising students would afford a mutually enjoyable moment of celebration for parents and teachers, this research reveals a counterintuitive finding: the action of praising students generatesinteractionalproblems for conference participants, precisely because utterances that praise students imply praise of parents.

In our everyday ordinary conversations, when one person assesses, or states a personal appraisal of, the value of something or someone s/he shares in common with the recipient, s/he virtually compels the recipient to do a follow-up assessment that agrees. (This is how we so often find ourselves talking about – and agreeing about – the weather when around both strangers and acquaintances – all it takes is one person saying, “Beautiful weather we’re having” to start the conversational ‘ball’ rolling.) But this situation gets more complicated when a speaker’s assessment is also a compliment. Any time we receive a compliment, we find ourselves in an interactional bind: on the one hand, there is a normative expectation that we should accept and agree with that assessment. On the other hand, and at the very same time, there is also a norm that we should avoid self-praise. Precisely because these two norms are at odds with one another, compliment-recipients are in a bind when producing a response: they must work to design their response so it displays sensitivity to both of these incompatible constraints.

During parent-teacher conferences, when a teacher praises the student by positively assessing that student’s academic performance and/or in-class behavior (e.g., “He’s doin’ really well”; “Academically she’s wonderful”), s/he places the student’s parents into the same interactional bind: on the one hand, the parents should accept the teacher’s praise (by doing a follow-up, agreeing assessment); but on the other hand, the parents should not straightforwardly agree with the teacher, lest they appear to be indulging in a form of self-praise. So what do parents do in response?

My research shows that parents deal with this problem by systematically passing on the opportunity to say anything substantive immediately following teachers’ praise of students. Instead, parents regularly laugh, produce closed-mouth vocalizations such as “Mmhm”, or they remain silent. Parents thereby acknowledge the teacher’s praise while specifically avoiding explicit agreement with the teacher, displaying their understanding of the teacher’s student-praise as a compliment.

But parents’ work to avoid self-praise by withholding a fuller verbal response creates another interactional problem. Because teachers’ student-praise is often met with no substantive response from parents, teachers may go on to explicitlycredit that student success to parents in pursuit of response. I have discovered that, immediately upon completing such crediting, teachers laugh, displaying their own orientation to what they have just said/done as interactionally problematic and delicate. Teachers use their laughter as a sign of, and partial remedy for, the delicate action of explicitly assessing the parent based upon how the student is performing/behaving. Teachers’ crediting utterances suggest that the parent is primarily and ultimately responsible for the student’s behavior/performance, momentarily leaking some of the unofficial business of the conference: teachers’ monitoring and judgment of the parent for how the child is performing in school. The action of crediting parents for student success embodies a ‘crack’ in the surface of the official business of the conference: teachers’ and parents’ joint monitoring and assessment of the student.

In addition, my research demonstrates that, when parents imply or state praise of the student, this too creates interactional problems. At the precise moment when parents’ talk projects delivery of student-praise, their speech becomes choppy and disfluent and they regularly trail-off, suppressing the positive comment altogether. And in the rare case when parents do make a favorable comment about the student, they systematically delay, qualify and/or account for their talk to manage how that comment is heard and understood by others. This study shows that parents are concerned to avoid the possible interpretation that they are in any way praising their own children throughout the duration of the parent-teacher conference, not only because such talk implicates self-praise, but also because such comments compromise their tacit claim to be credible perceivers, and fair appraisers, of their own children.

If you are a teacher who has experienced awkwardness during parent-teacher conferences when you least expected it – at the moment you were saying something positive and celebratory about the student – this research shows that you are not alone, and it explains why. And if you are a parent/caregiver who finds it difficult to praise your child when talking to teachers, you too are not alone. In fact, if you find it much easier to criticize your child during conferences, you have discovered – without necessarily being consciously aware of it – a remarkably effective way of collaborating with your child’s teacher to avoid conflict. By not praising your child, you avoid sounding defensive and display to the teacher that you are prepared to be receptive to his/her potential suggestions for student improvement.

About the author (s)

Danielle Pillet-Shore

University of New Hampshire

Assistant Professor