The Downside of Praise

Are our kids becoming praise junkies?

There is plenty of parenting advice that sings the praises of praise. Positive reinforcement – in the form of tangible rewards (stickers) or verbal compliments, “Good job!” – has been in vogue since the late 1960s. Thought to build self-esteem while reinforcing children’s desirable behaviour, praise has become the super parenting tool: more pleasant than punishment with guaranteed good results.

Surprisingly, over the past 15 years a large quantity of research has revealed that while praise may give us short term gain in the form of initial compliance, ultimately it destroys a child’s motivation and undermines their self esteem. How is it possible that a seemingly positive thing can have such negative results and what other options do we have?

Sugar-coated control

Often we compliment our children because we’re genuinely pleased by what they’ve done – partly because we love our kids and enjoy seeing them succeed, and partly due to the sense of pride we take in their accomplishments. However, using praise as a way to reinforce positive behaviour, like displaying nice table manners or sharing with others, is a kind of manipulation.

Offering a verbal reward, “Well done”, or a bribe such as dessert after supper, is no different from a punishment like a ‘time out’; its motivation is simply compliance which is a form of control. While convenient for us, it does little to teach our child the skills needed to become a polite, caring grown-up.
If we want our children to develop effective problem solving and social skills, we’ll need to teach them the specifics of ‘how’ and ‘why’, not just ‘what’ to do. To become good decision makers, they’ll need plenty of practice.

Producing praise junkies

Praise works in the short run because young children are hungry for our approval. But if we train them to act based on the pleasure we take in their behaviour rather than their own assessments, we are effectively making them dependent on our valuation of them. The more we say, “I like the way you…sat quietly”, the more kids rely on our decisions about what’s good and bad, rather than internalizing their own sense of right and wrong.

Research tells us that students who are praised extensively are more tentative in their responses, back off original ideas as soon as an adult disagrees with them, and are less likely to persist with difficult tasks or share their ideas with others. In other 

words, rather than reassure, praise makes kids feel insecure and may create a vicious cycle in which they constantly seek more praise in order to feel successful.

The trouble with needing that external reward is that without it, children quickly lose interest in any given task. When the goal is a pat on the head rather than the pure joy of creating, thinking or learning, the internal motivation simply dries up.

In the long-run

What our children want and need is our uncon-ditional love. This often translates into attention – time-in as a witness to, or active participant in, their favourite activities. The importance of encouraging and supporting our kids is unquestionable. To do this without telling a child how they should feel, manipulating their behaviour, or undermining their internal motivation, try this:

  • Notice and make an observation, “Your drawing has a lot of orange in it.” or “You trained hard for that game.”
  • Ask questions instead of making judgements, “What do you think about it?” or “How did that make you feel?”
  • Model self-reflection – consider your own internal motivators and talk about what’s important to you and why, like your enjoyment of dinner hour when everyone is polite or how you value generosity toward others
  • Name the thoughts, feelings and values that lie beneath any behaviour, such as jealousy, frustration or generosity
  • Focus on effort rather than performance; emphasize process over end results like taking notice of how hard your child worked to complete a project or how difficult it was for them to follow through on a task
  • Use praise sparingly and specifically, “I really appreciated your help cleaning the bathrooms for our guests.”

We want our children to have a sense of their own moral compass and to develop the resiliency they’ll need to take healthy risks and maintain their motivation in the face of loss or failure. Engaging them in discussion about how they feel when they make certain choices and collaborating with them to make positive decisions rather than addicting them to our praise, empowers them to become the thoughtful, happy, adults we hope they’ll be.

Author: Sasha Korper

Sasha Korper is dedicated to helping kids have more fun while they learn. She works and lives in Northumberland with her husband and youngest daughter.

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