Five Reasons to Think Twice Before Praising Your Child and Five Ideas for What to Do Instead

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(photo:You want your child to be free, to be led by his or her own inner self)

A mom at the playground this morning called excitedly to her child. “Good job!” I couldn’t see her because I was working inside a greenhouse next to the twisty orange plastic slide. Thirty seconds later, I heard it again, “Good job!” and again perhaps a minute later, “good job!” Had I been a time traveler, I could have dated this scene as being in the post year 2000 era.

I don’t remember being praised as a child. I didn’t miss it. It is not as if all my friends were blanketed with praise and I was left out in the cold. Parental praise was simply not that frequent in the 1950s. Nevertheless, my mother, who was raised in the Midwest, where humility is considered one of the highest virtues, probably was more miserly with praise than some parents. Nor do I remember being praised at my Quaker girls’ school where the school motto included the word “lowliness”, another term for humility.

My sense is that parents and teachers started upping the praise of children at some point after the year 2000. Back in the 1990s, when I was a rookie teacher, most parents were still like the parents of the 1950s. They did not routinely tell their children that they were “proud of them” and “good job” was not yet something parents said at every opportunity – zooming down a slide, tooth brushing, a nice painting, a good score on a math test, eating vegetables or picking out a non-clashing outfit to wear to school.

So, what happened? Was there an outpouring of academic research that showed that kids across America were suffering from lack of recognition of their skills with a toothbrush, a paintbrush or a fork? Did a well-respected author or famous pediatrician encourage parents to increase statements of approval to at least three per hour?

As far as I can tell, there were no widely heralded decrees by experts that told parents and teachers to become cheerleaders for childhood performance. In fact, Alfie Kohn’s book, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes was published in 1999. In spite of Kohn’s sage advice, the habit of frequent praising took off in the first decade of the 21st century.

My guess is that public schools got the ball rolling by incessantly measuring student progress. The federal 2002 education law required standardized testing and came with threats that schools could be closed if they did not show ever increasing test scores. This new push to achieve measurable goals increased pressure on teachers who sought the nicest way possible to pressure children to achieve. In some cases they actually were taught classical animal training methods called behavior modification with praise (and occasionally candy) as rewards. Soon, parents picked up on the vibe.

If you are someone who frequently praises your child, and you consider your reasons, you probably do so because you find praise to be a heartfelt expression of love and support. And, you probably heard other parents offering frequent praise, so it simply seems like a normal, expected part of parenting. Your motivation is good, but then the non-praising parents of the 1950’s also had good reasons for not giving frequent praise.

If your goal in praising your child is to offer love and support, take a moment to consider that praise, in some situations, may be unsupportive.

Why might you think twice before praising your child?

  1. You want your child to be free, to be led by his or her own inner self, not outer influences including your approval. No matter what your intention, praise can manipulate child behavior. It is a powerful motivator used in a calculated way by some educators, bosses and animal trainers to influence the behavior of animals and people. It doesn’t matter if your goal is not to control or change your child through praise. If you praise a behavior often enough you will begin to see more of that particular behavior. Eventually, if your praise is frequent enough, your child’s drive to play, to learn, to explore, to find wonder and genuine interest may shrink while his or her orientation toward positive reinforcement grows.
  1. You want your child to be truly self-confident A child who has become accustomed to look to parents and teachers for reinforcement can be distracted from finding his or her own sense of accomplishment. Further, a child who is frequently judged, even if that judgment is positive, develops the habit of frequent self-evaluation and may become anxious about keeping up a high level of achievement.
  1. You want your child to be an eager learner, to lose herself in reading, interesting projects, thinking, planning, inventing, exploring, playing, running, dancing, swimming. Note the words “lose herself.” Think of stories about inventors who are deeply immersed in making a discovery or of athletes fully engaged in their sport. Much of childhood can be a path of discovery and engagement, a time when awareness of self fades as a mood of fascination or a sense of being in the zone takes over. Praise can interrupt a child’s immersion in an activity or project by switching the focus to self-judgment.
  1. You hope your child will be successful in his or her chosen life path. Studies of motivation in adults show us that success is more likely if a person is dedicated to their work than if they pursue their job for rewards such as increased pay or status. If makes sense then to help your child discover learning and working for the joy of discovery and accomplishment rather than for praise, grades, or other rewards. In fact, researchers at the University of Florida, in a study of West Point cadets, discovered that those with mixed motivation (for instance a combination of dedication and a wish for increased status) were less likely to succeed than those who were simply dedicated without the motivation of an external reward. The implication here is that even a slight leaning toward working for the reward of praise or grades could decrease your child’s likelihood for success. This study was done with adults and may not be entirely relevant for children. http://www.pnas.org/content/111/30/10990.abstract Nevertheless, it sounds a cautionary note that leads me to wonder about how many external rewards a child can handle before his intrinsic motivation is affected.

5 You want your child to be caring, to avoid being egocentric, to think: it’s not about me being great, it’s about giving or creating or observing something great.

Instead of Praise

William Butler Yeats said “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Parents get to do both, to provide physical nourishment (the filling of the pail) and also to light the fire of learning and a passion for life. Real support is not simply words of approval about performance; it is helping children find their bliss. The joy of parenting is about evening walks under the stars, afternoons exploring tide pools, planting seeds, bike rides and reading aloud every evening before bed. It is about sharing, not judging. The opportunity to see your child enjoy the world brings you back to your own childhood joy in discovery.

Young children find happiness and wonder in free play. This is their work, a series of creative experiments with physics, chemistry, social science and art. While an adolescent may settle on one or a few topics or activities as favorites, a healthy child of elementary school age is more likely to have a wide range of interests or sequential interests, preferring to build a model train set for weeks or months before becoming immersed in all things related to ballet, followed by a reading binge.

Over time, most children become drawn to favorite activities. For instance, a child who is truly loves astronomy will beg to be outside after bedtime. She will, at first, look at stars with the naked eye and then the family binoculars, then save money for a telescope and become so buried in an astronomy book that she may need a reminder to eat lunch. Watching his son peer through binoculars at the moon, a praise-oriented dad might say, “Your interest in astronomy shows how smart you are.” As a parent lets go of the habit of praise and moves into the habit of non-judgmental sharing, he might show interest in the activity by asking, “What can you see through the binoculars that we can’t see with just our eyes? Can you show me?”

1 Help your child find activities that truly engage. Help your child come to see herself as a person who freely discovers and devotes herself to interests and activities. Don’t invest much in an activity until you see whether it sticks. Rent the musical instrument before you buy it, buy used sports equipment at first. Your child’s sense of empowerment in one or two areas will add to self-confidence and a sense of joy in life.

2 Share your own enjoyment in discovery, creation, problem solving and adventure. Sharing your own pursuits and interests with your child is one of the most rewarding parts of parenting. Also, try to help your child connect to other adults, the grandparent who enjoys cooking, the friend who makes pottery or relative who can give a meaningful tour of an art museum.

3 Avoid modeling self-judgment and anxiety. Judith Warner’s 2006 book, Perfect Madness, Motherhood in an Age of Anxiety describes parenting in our era as an activity burdened with a sense of competition with other parents and a sense of anxiety about getting it all right. Parents who are sucked into these negative mindsets likely became praise junkies in their own childhoods and are still looking for compliments when they pull off a birthday extravaganza. As you let go of the habit of judging your child, let go of judging yourself.

4 Observe and encourage observation. As a teacher, I find that students ask me, ”Is my painting good?” I teach them to ask me instead to “please, tell me something about my painting.” This question provides an opening for me to observe without judgment. I might say, “Your painting reminds me of walking by the bay on a very foggy day. I can almost hear the fog horn in the distance.” (This was the painting that someone might say was too watery, but if one observes without judgment, the foggy day appears to be intentional.) “Your landscape has so many shades of green. Let’s see if we can count them.” Letting go of the habit of judgment and praise doesn’t mean you have to stop discussing the piano recital, baseball game, or the wild zoom down the curvy, orange plastic slide. It will take more thought to share your observations about your child’s performances instead of saying, “good job.” “At first, your piano piece made me think of hopping bunnies and then, in the slow part, I imagined the bunnies going to sleep.” “It must have been frustrating to wait so long to get to bat. It was so suspenseful watching you just make it to second base before the baseman caught the ball.” “Wow! That slide is so fast!”

5 Express Love and Gratitude. Sometimes, your heart impels you to say more than an observation. You are moved by your child’s piano piece, by her run around the bases, by his energy devoted to sliding again and again. Rachel Mary Stafford writes about how she loves to watch her children and what she tells them when her heart is full. The words are simple, but say so much: “I love watching you.” Read her piece here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rachel-macy-stafford/six-words-you-should-say-today_b_3863643.html

When you think twice before praising your child, you will begin to notice more. It’s not whether the job is bad or good, but what exactly is the job being done, the task being accomplished, the creativity being displayed? What does this activity mean to your child? What is interesting about the activity? What are you curious about? What does your child want to tell you? Praise has a way of ending a conversation. So think twice, and instead of judging, join your child in the joy of becoming.

***

POST SCRIPT

As I speak with people about the subject of praise, they are eager to share stores from their own childhoods. Some have parents who praised frequently and made the child wonder if the praise was sincere. Others had parents who never praised and who worried aloud about their child becoming too proud of their achievements. These children felt unvalued. What do you remember about being praised as a child? Please share your stories in comments! Also, we would appreciate hearing where you found this blog.  Like Growing Children on Facebook or follow this blog for more posts about the art of helping children grow at home, at school and in the garden.

When does praise do more good than harm? Researchers have found answers to this question and it’s complex.   This article from Parenting Science provides a helpful summary of research about praising children. It is interesting that praise can benefit babies and toddlers, but it is worth thinking twice before praising grade school children. “Older kids are more sophisticated and may interpret your praise in negative ways”

http://www.parentingscience.com/effects-of-praise.html

  One thought on “Five Reasons to Think Twice Before Praising Your Child and Five Ideas for What to Do Instead

  1. Jordie
    December 11, 2014 at 6:03 pm

    Very well written! Good Job!!! I’m so proud of you!!!! 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • December 11, 2014 at 7:00 pm

      Jordi,
      I laughed when I read your comment!

      Like

  2. June 24, 2015 at 6:28 am

    I wonder if the tendency to overpraise is because we were seldom praised.

    Like

  3. Pippa McKinnon
    July 12, 2015 at 6:55 am

    Dear Kim,

    I have just read your blog for the first time and am going to jump straight in and just ask…would you consider granting me permission to visit your school space and work alongside/help hands-on in your garden/poly tunnel space for a few weeks?
    I am a gardener by curious experiment and hard work rather than university qualified and I am working on developing child-lead, horticultural/play therapy sessions for schools here in the UK. I am self-employed, up against the education system, exhausted teaching staff trying to reach targets and of course…low funding at every turn. I have it in my heart to push forward and keep developing a vision much like yours of simply providing the children with horticulture space to grow and nurture especially food which they learn then to prepare and cook for themselves. Involving the community and allowing adults to reconnect with nature in this way too seems like a side dish of good work much needed too. And you are doing it! How best to contact you on email please? Blessings and light, Pippa

    Like

  4. August 26, 2015 at 7:00 pm

    Interesting article and I liked your ideas on what to do instead. We do tend to overpraise and I might add, overreact to problems and mistakes. If we all learned to observe and ask thought provoking questions to our kids instead, I think we would find them much more cooperative, willing to listen and caring about what we say to them. I am enjoying your blog as I am teaching a homeschool class this year on gardening! We are going to work year round, but everyone will take their plants home. I am still working out all the details, but excited to get going! Cheers! Gretchen

    Like

  5. Elliott Mellichamp
    August 27, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    Is the pendulum finally swinging back toward intrinsic self respect?!!!

    Like

  6. November 24, 2016 at 10:33 pm

    I listened to the book “Drive” by Dan Pink, and he shared some of the same things that you shared here–that intrinsic, inward motivation is much better than extrinsic, outward motivation, such as being driven by praise or financial reward.

    I would also suggest “Generation Me” by Jean Twenge as an excellent explanation of the self-esteem drivel that has fueled 30+ years of parenting and teaching, and how it is corrupting our generation.

    Thanks for this post and your thoughts!

    Like

    • November 24, 2016 at 10:43 pm

      Thanks for your book recommendations! I will put those on my reading list.

      Like

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