To praise or not to praise? Is this a real question?! How can anybody put a question mark on this parenting staple? If you want kids’ behaviour to improve and for them to gain a positive image of themselves, of course you have to praise. How else will they know that they are doing something right if we don’t say “Good job”, “Good boy”, “Clever girl”, “Good sharing”, right? Hmmm…. Not quite. It all goes back to the question I posed in A Positive Discipline Guide to Gentle Parenting – what do you want for your children? What kind of people would you like them to become? If you are aiming for confident, resilient children who have a good idea of their self-worth, using excessive praise isn’t going to achieve this. But let us start from the beginning. So, what’s wrong with praise?
Surely, if we constantly repeat to our kids that they are smart, beautiful, good friends, how proud we are of their achievements and so on, they will eventually internalise that message and become the person we want them to become. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. The dictionary defines praise as an expression of approval, favourable judgment and glorification, especially by attribution of perfection. So by definition, praise acts as an extrinsic motivator and that is part of the problem. If kids’ motivation is extrinsic and thus comes from the outside, it means that they do something with a means to an end in mind, for example to gain something or avoid being punished. Practically, I am talking about a difference between doing your piano practice because you love playing piano (intrinsic motivation) and practicing piano because you want to hear the praise and get that reward you were promised (extrinsic motivation). And it doesn’t stop there: excessive extrinsic motivation is likely to undermine intrinsic motivation. The more parents praise, the more children learn to depend on that praise (thus becoming “praise junkies”) and silence or ignore the motivators that come from the inside. This in the long run tends to invite dependency on others and it doesn’t nurture self-confidence.
Furthermore, praise is a direct product of what is known as conditional parenting. This type of parenting focuses mainly on kids’ behaviour, largely ignoring the fact that there are reasons, thoughts and feelings behind the behaviour. It also believes that parental love is a privilege to be earned, while kids’ behaviour is being controlled via rewards, praise and punishment. Thus, when children are subjected to hearing a lot of praise for what is deemed to be appropriate behaviour, the message that children are getting is “My love to you is not unconditional. It depends on your behaviour. I love you only when you are ‘good’”. This sometimes results in children feeling the pressure to be perfect in order not to disappoint their parents, which further causes fear of failure. Another possible reaction is that children may just give up because they feel they can’t live up to the praise and the high expectations their parents set for them.
And it doesn’t stop there as research has shown that praise gets in the way of children acquiring many life skills and characteristics that we would like them to have, such as being generous, kind, open-minded, creative, and growing into confident adults with positive self-image and self-esteem. Let’s explore generosity, for example. Alfie Kohn notices that children who are being praised for their display of generosity (sharing, for example) are less likely to be generous when there are no adults around them to observe their act of sharing and respond with appropriate praise.
It is also worth examining how praising kids’ intellectual abilities affects them. Carol Dweck’s research has shown that excessive praising and rewarding of children’s intelligence can create what she called a “fixed” mindset – as soon as overly praised children find themselves in a problem situation they don’t appear to know how to solve, they lose confidence and motivation. This is because they believe that if success means they are smart (due to praise), then failure means they are stupid (because nobody has ever praised them for failure).
If you are at this moment feeling very overwhelmed – that is a normal reaction. And don’t get me wrong – an occasional “Good job” is not going to damage your child forever. But let’s not aim that low. Let us look into parenting habits that are going to help you nurture building confidence, internal motivation and self-esteem in your children, without unnecessary praise.
For this I have one word for you – encouragement. Dreikurs has said “Children need encouragement like a plant needs water.” This is why learning the art of effective encouragement is one of the most important parenting skills. As opposed to praise, which is usually generic and focuses on the end result and the person, true encouragement is selective, specific to the situation and the child, and focuses on the task and process. The easiest way to differentiate between praise and encouragement is to ask yourself if what you are saying could only be said to this child at this time. If your words could be applied to any child, you are not truly encouraging since true encouragement is unique to the child, place and situation.
How do we do it?
- First of all, learn to bite your tongue whenever you want to say “Good girl”, “Good job” or similar.
- Then simply describe what you see. Most parents mistakenly believe that children crave their evaluation (“Brilliant picture!”, “Wow, that is amazing!”, “Super work!”). They don’t. What they crave is to be noticed and acknowledged, so a simple description of what you see is far better than “good jobbing” – “I can see you have been painting. You used red, blue and yellow. You drew a sun and some trees.”
- After that, if appropriate to the situation, ask relevant questions and listen: “What is this blue square on your picture?”, “Tell me more about these flowers here.”
- If a child asks you specifically whether you like their picture, say something like “ I love it, but how do you feel about it?”
By following these steps, you are showing interest and inviting your child to allow you into their world and share their ideas and feelings. No amount of “good jobs” is ever going to achieve this.
Let us consider another example to help you further understand the difference between praise and encouragement. It is dinner time and you ask your child to help you set the table. They do what you asked them and your response is “Good job”. Is this response specific? Is it focusing on the effort? Can it only be applied to your child in that particular situation? No, no and no; which means that you are using generic praise. What else can you say to your child in this situation to avoid unnecessary praise? Try following these steps:
- Describe what you see: “You put cutlery on the table.”
- Model behaviour and skills you want them to develop by saying “Thank you.”
- Point out the skills that they are exhibiting at the moment – “That was very helpful.”
Is this approach specific to the situation and the child? Does it still make kids feel good about themselves? Yes, but not because they were placated with a generic “Good job”, but because we appreciated their effort and pointed out a specific life skill they were showing and we would like them to develop.
So, if we want our children to become kind, generous, caring, confident individuals who have positive self-esteem, “to praise or not to praise?” is not the question we should be asking. It should be “to praise or to encourage?” I would encourage you to do the latter – take time to practice being encouraging and watch your children grow in confidence and resilience. And I promise I won’t praise you if you do.
Information presented in this article was based on Positive Discipline and gentle parenting publications, including:
Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen
Positive Discipline: The First Three Years by Jane Nelsen
Unconditional parenting by Alfie Kohn
Parent Speak by Jennifer Lehr
Mindset by Carol Dweck
Marijana Filipović-Carter is a mum of two and a Positive Discipline Parent Educator. She runs courses and workshops for parents and other childcare providers; she also offers individual support to parents via skype, phone or email ([email protected]) To find out more about what Marijana can do for you, please visit www.pdparentingsolutions.org . You can also like her Facebook page to join the Positive Discipline virtual community https://www.facebook.com/pdparentingsolutions/