Seven Ways Over Praising Children Can Do Harm (And What We Can Say or Do Instead)

A couple of months ago, in a post about competitive sports, I mentioned how over praising children could do more harm than good. There was some interest in a follow-up post to that theory, so here goes: Praise is bad. Don’t do it. End of post.

Just kidding. Can you blame me for trying to add a little levity to a highly touchy topic?

Over Praising Children

Many researchers agree that praise is the verbal equivalent of a tangible reward.

In my experience, most parents do not see any problem with praise. On the contrary. The more praise, the better. Spend about an hour at any playground, and you’re bound to hear the ubiquitous “Good job!” in reference to just about anything: “Good climbing!” “Good sharing!” “Good sliding!” And what’s wrong with that? Isn’t it one of our jobs as parents to make our children feel good about themselves?

Well, yes and no. Here’s where we get to the crux of it all. What, exactly, is wrong with praise? Are you sitting down? Good.

1)  Praise implies judgment.
When we label something our child has done as a “Good job,” the implication is that the “job” could just as likely have been “bad.” Or when we say, “What a pretty drawing,” there’s also a possibility that it could be ugly. Worse yet, when we say things like “Good boy” or “Good girl,” we imply that our child himself could be “bad.”

2)  Praise is a form of manipulation (and kids eventually learn to recognize it).
I know as well as any parent, the heady pleasure of having a child who obeys my commands. We’re rushed, we need to do X, Y, and Z quickly, and when T does it, by golly, I’m a happy camper, and I’ve told him so.

But when I look at the big picture, I feel ashamed. I don’t want T to do things just to make my day easier or so that I can control him. I want him to do them because he intrinsically understands the effect of his behavior on the situation at hand and others. (Now that he’s a Big Boy FIVE, he’s really beginning to grasp this.)

Unconditional Parenting author Alfie Kohn says praise is “very much like tangible rewards—or, for that matter, punishments. It’s a way of doing something TO children to get them to comply with our wishes…. but it’s very different from working WITH kids….  The latter approach is not only more respectful but more likely to help kids become thoughtful people.”

And think about it. As adults, most of us know when someone is dishing out a load of hooey. It comes across clear as day and we don’t appreciate it. Same with kids. The praise may have the intended effect (obedience) in the beginning, but as kids grow more aware, they can sniff it out a mile away and suddenly, who’s “rebelling” or being “disobedient”?

3)  Praise creates “praise junkies” and lowers self-esteem.
In his book, Kohn cites research carried out by Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Columbia University. When we praise our child for something he’s done, the child doesn’t connect the praise to just that one behavior. Rather, he generalizes it and applies the praise to his  “whole self,” seeing himself as “good” ONLY when he’s done something to please the parent. Kohn elaborates: “That’s a powerful way of undermining self-esteem. The more we say ‘Good job!’ the worse the child comes to feel about himself, and the more praise he needs.”

Naomi Aldort, author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves and an article entitled “Getting Out of the Way,” agrees. “The praised-for-every-achievement child SEEMS like a happy, successful, highly self-esteemed child. In reality, such a child has shifted to the pleasing mode, driven to success not by personal curiosity or delight, but by the desire to oblige us and live up to our expectations.”

As one father recalls in the book Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, “I was praised too much and ended up feeling like a trained seal. To this day, I want outside acknowledgement for every task, no matter how trivial.”

4)  Praise steals a child’s pleasure.
I’ll never forget the time T read his first word. The look on his face was pure glee. “Mommy, Mommy! Guess what? I just read the word ‘FREE’!” (He was looking at some ads in the paper.) It took every ounce of strength in my body not to say “Ohmygoshsweetie, that’s AWESOME!” Because it was. And I was beside myself with pride and happiness for him. But instead of “labeling” his accomplishment as “awesome” or “good” or “great,” I beamed a huge smile and said, “Show me!” And with unbridled enthusiasm, he told me all about it.

In his article entitled “Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job’,” Kohn says, “A child deserves to take delight in her accomplishments, to feel pride in what she’s learned how to do. She also deserves to decide WHEN to feel that way. Every time we say, ‘Good job!’, though, we’re telling a child how to feel.”

5)  Praise focuses on the end result, not the process.
More often than not, praise is doled out only after a success or an achievement. The process itself leading to the success, and the struggles and mistakes made and learned from along the journey are not recognized nearly as often. This sends the message to children that hard work and effort are not valuable or worthy of attention.

6)  Praise is often inaccurate.
This point is best illustrated by an anecdote from Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting book:

“Recently I found myself at a crafts activity sponsored by a local library in which children were invited to create snowflakes out of pipe cleaners and beads. A boy of about four or five sitting near me showed his mother what he had done, and immediately she gushed about how wonderful it was. Then, since I was the only other adult at the table, he held out his snowflake so I, too, could see it. Instead of offering an evaluation, I asked him whether he liked it.

“‘Not so much,’ he admitted. I asked why, and he began to explain, his tone suggesting genuine interest in figuring out other possible ways he might have used the materials.

“This is exactly the sort of elaboration and reflection that are stifled when we slather our kids with praise. They tend to stop thinking and talking about what they’ve done as soon as we pass judgment on it.”

7)  Praise reduces achievement.
This sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? If you praise someone for a job well done, shouldn’t that motivate them to do more of the same or better?

Not necessarily, according to Dweck (the Columbia research psychologist). In her study of 400 New York fifth-graders, she examined the behavior of children who were praised for being “smart” at solving a test of puzzles. When it was time for the next test, these “smart” kids were asked to choose between an “easy” set of puzzles and a “difficult” set. Most of them chose the “easy” set. The moral of the story? Better to succeed at something easy than risk losing face at something hard.

After repeating her experiments, Dweck found that her results held true for students of every socioeconomic class, as well as both genders and preschoolers.

So, knowing all this, what are we as parents supposed to do? Ignore our kids accomplishments? Never take joy in what they achieve?

Of course not. Thankfully, there are alternatives.

Praise vs. Acknowledgement

First, let’s clarify the semantics. According to Kohn and other praise critics, there is a huge difference between “praise” and “acknowledgement.” As we’ve already seen, praise is all those seven baddy things, and more. “Acknowledgement,” however, is a way to respond to your child without judgment.

It can be hard to distinguish between these concepts. Believe me. I struggle with it daily.

Here are some basic ways of acknowledging our children’s actions instead of praising them:

Say what you saw. By describing your observations, you’re giving your child the gift of a broader vocabulary and the ability to narrate, AND you’re more likely to include a range of behaviors, rather than just the end result.

Praise:  “Good job climbing!”
Acknowledgement:  “I noticed you remembered how to climb down safely. You’ve been practicing that for a long time.”

Explain how your child’s behavior affects the situation or others. This is sort of an extension of saying what you saw and points out the effect of his actions on the situation at hand as well as on other people, and thus, can be a way of instilling a sense of compassion for others.

Praise:  “What a good helper you are!”
Acknowledgement:  “Thanks so much helping to put away the dishes. Now we’ll have more time to play a game.”

Praise:  “You’re so nice!”
Acknowledgement:  “Jake looks happy that you took turns on the bike with him.”

Reflect your child’s feelings. This one is really easy to remember, especially because most kids don’t hold back their emotions. When they’re excited, it’s no secret! They will be grinning from ear to ear.

Praise:  “What a cool sea shell!”
Acknowledgement:  “You look so happy that you found that sea shell!”

Ask questions. This is perhaps the most important tip of all. Asking questions invites reflection and a dialogue about your child’s actions or accomplishments, and can provide valuable insight into how your child views himself.

Praise:  “What a beautiful painting!”
Acknowledgement:  “I see you used a lot of red over here. Why did you choose red instead of any other color?”

Use body language. Sometimes words get in the way. A genuine smile, open arms, and your complete presence are all that’s needed for a child to feel recognized and loved.

I know what you’re thinking. These things sound hokey and unnatural. It’s true. They do feel that way sometimes, especially at first. Praise is temptingly easy and a knee-jerk reaction; acknowledgement requires brain effort and presence. And you won’t always get it just right. (Five years later, I still let slip the occasional “That’s so cool!” or second-guess my “acknowledgement” response.) But to me, it’s effort well spent if it means my son is learning to form his own healthy opinions of himself and his accomplishments instead of relying on me (or anyone else, for that matter) to define his self-worth.

No doubt this was a hard pill to swallow for many (or maybe not). What do you think? Let’s discuss!

Sophia
KidZui Mom

Sophia savors all the joys (and challenges!) of motherhood with her husband C, son T, and soon-to-be baby girl in San Diego. Read more of her (mis)adventures in mothering at MamaSayMamaSo.

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9 Responses to Seven Ways Over Praising Children Can Do Harm (And What We Can Say or Do Instead)

  1. Lyann says:

    You are preaching to the choir, sister! Amazing post

  2. Lyann says:

    You are preaching to the choir, sister! Amazing post

  3. Probably nerdy says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here, and I’ve been looking for what has caused my brilliant child to have so much “give up” in him. He is constantly looking for that outside reinforcement. He even constantly tells us that he loves us, I believe, so that we will say it back. How do you suggest we approach this at ten? Obviously we can’t completely stop praising him all at once, can we? Won’t he feel like he has done something wrong? Help us fix what we’ve broken.

  4. Probably nerdy says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here, and I’ve been looking for what has caused my brilliant child to have so much “give up” in him. He is constantly looking for that outside reinforcement. He even constantly tells us that he loves us, I believe, so that we will say it back. How do you suggest we approach this at ten? Obviously we can’t completely stop praising him all at once, can we? Won’t he feel like he has done something wrong? Help us fix what we’ve broken.

  5. Sophia says:

    Probably nerdy, thanks so much for sharing your situation. First, let’s be clear, I’m no child psychologist (unless a BA in Psychology counts??) ;) but I do so want to help!

    Just thinking out loud here… my gut says nothing is broken. Isn’t that the magic of children? That they’re so completely malleable and go-with-the-flow? Ten is not an age I have personal experience with, but what do you think about having a candid conversation with your child about your new views on praise/acknowledgement? How do you think he might respond? It might open up some interesting discussion if you confess that parents don’t always know what they’re doing either and that we all mistakes and the key is to learn from them. You might even consider soliciting HIS opinion on how it feels to receive praise vs. any of the other “acknowledgement” responses mentioned above. Similiarly, what was your experience with praise as a child? Perhaps sharing how YOU felt as a child when you received (or didn’t receive) praise might provide additional insight and connection with your son.

    And how about not going “cold turkey” necessarily, but wean him off praise little by little. So, continue to say what you said previously, but temper it with some of the “acknowledgement” responses suggested above until eventually you are showing “unconditional” love, presence, and attention without judgment in the form of praise.

    If you haven’t already, I’d highly recommend getting a copy of Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting (there’s also a DVD) – or maybe you can find one or both at your local library. Kohn also has his own website http://www.alfiekohn.org/contactus.php I wonder if you wrote him if he’d have any specific ideas for you?

    I hope this helps, even a little bit. We’re all learning “on the job” here as parents. We have to remember to be kind to ourselves, too. Best of luck to you.

    Sophia

  6. Sophia says:

    Probably nerdy, thanks so much for sharing your situation. First, let’s be clear, I’m no child psychologist (unless a BA in Psychology counts??) ;) but I do so want to help!

    Just thinking out loud here… my gut says nothing is broken. Isn’t that the magic of children? That they’re so completely malleable and go-with-the-flow? Ten is not an age I have personal experience with, but what do you think about having a candid conversation with your child about your new views on praise/acknowledgement? How do you think he might respond? It might open up some interesting discussion if you confess that parents don’t always know what they’re doing either and that we all mistakes and the key is to learn from them. You might even consider soliciting HIS opinion on how it feels to receive praise vs. any of the other “acknowledgement” responses mentioned above. Similiarly, what was your experience with praise as a child? Perhaps sharing how YOU felt as a child when you received (or didn’t receive) praise might provide additional insight and connection with your son.

    And how about not going “cold turkey” necessarily, but wean him off praise little by little. So, continue to say what you said previously, but temper it with some of the “acknowledgement” responses suggested above until eventually you are showing “unconditional” love, presence, and attention without judgment in the form of praise.

    If you haven’t already, I’d highly recommend getting a copy of Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting (there’s also a DVD) – or maybe you can find one or both at your local library. Kohn also has his own website http://www.alfiekohn.org/contactus.php I wonder if you wrote him if he’d have any specific ideas for you?

    I hope this helps, even a little bit. We’re all learning “on the job” here as parents. We have to remember to be kind to ourselves, too. Best of luck to you.

    Sophia

  7. Be very careful sheeple says:

    Ok, overpraising is bad. Of course it is, it becomes meaningless. But going so far as to never praise, how very very sad. Of course, America is the land of extremes. The land of followers of every guru that comes along. Kohn is dangerous. Just because bad praise existed, (a sticker for everything, a medal for every participant), and it was meaningless, there is nothing sadder than a child wanting to really connect, to matter, and to have praise, being coldly manipulated to never have any, by parents who are too scared to parent with their hearts. I dread the little monsters that will be raised by ‘cold’ parents who will never know the true joy of really making someone else heart sing with their abilities, or acknowledging their gifts.
    Even in these comments, people write ‘great article’ Isn’t that praise? Wake up people, just because too much praise is meaningless, why go the complete opposite and withdraw any? I’m a teacher who gives my students PRAISE, but not for everything, all the time, and they want praise, need praise and feel good about their achievements. Who the hell wants to go through life just making themselves ‘happy’ and never connecting? Cmon, give praise. We got it as children and we are fine! think for yourselves instead of just following the latest fad.

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