This is one in a series of posts I wrote on gentle, respectful ways to discipline, teach, and interact with young children. Updated 1/23/2012.
Praise not. Or maybe it’s praise selectively…
“Let your child’s inner joy be self-motivating. You can smile and express your genuine feelings but should refrain from giving excessive compliments, clapping your hands, and making a big fuss. If you do this, your child starts seeking satisfaction from external sources. She can get hooked on praise, becoming a performer seeking applause instead of an explorer. Praise also disrupts and interrupts a child’s learning process. She stops what she’s doing and focuses on you, sometimes not returning to the activity.” –Magda Gerber, Your Self Confident Baby
My friend Amy, who is an awesome Mom to two boys, and a former preschool teacher said, “But Lisa, kids love and thrive on praise. Praise is a way for parents to show their affection and share their joy and pride in their children’s accomplishments, and you’re telling them NOT to do it?”
Her point is well taken, but I ask you to consider this: Praise can be demeaning and meaningless when it is repeated again and again in an automatic way, and when it’s not really warranted. Children don’t need to be praised or told they are “good” for doing things that they are easily capable of, or that come as a natural part of their maturation. “Good boy, nice eating!” We talk to our pets this way. Our children deserve better.
This is a good place to note that all children are “good” regardless of their behavior at times, and you don’t want to set them up to judge their basic self worth based on whether or not someone else says they are a good or bad child for accomplishing (or not) any specific task. You want your child to feel loved and worthy for who she is, despite the fact that she may sometimes fall short in meeting your goals or expectations (or her own, for that matter).
Children engage in many activities and behaviors because the activity itself has intrinsic value and interest. “Good walking, Ashley.” Have you ever heard another parent say something like this to their child, (or maybe you’ve even said it yourself)? It can be hard to know how to celebrate a young child’s achievements, and the truth is, it is often so exciting when they master a developmental milestone, we want to celebrate with and for them.
And why not? I know it feels good to me to be acknowledged when I’ve worked hard to achieve something. It’s nice when someone notices, thanks us, or appreciates our efforts, especially if we’ve struggled hard to master a new skill. I love to write this blog, and would write even if no one read or commented, because it is satisfying to me. I appreciate it when others “like” and share my posts, but what I really love is when someone writes to me and says, “Thank you. I tried some of the suggestions you made, and here’s what happened. This really worked, but I’m still struggling with this.” “Your words made me really think about…” Or even, “I have questions and I’m not sure I agree with anything you’re saying.”
I suggest if you really want to convey your love, and let your child know you really see, hear, and appreciate his efforts and achievements, you say things like this: “Wow, I really like how you are remembering to stay near me today instead of wandering off.” Or, “Thank you for waiting so patiently while I paid for the groceries.That really helped me.” Or, “You remembered to walk while we were in the library today, and I didn’t have to remind you.” Or, “You worked really hard to put your shoes on all by yourself and you did it!” “Wow, look at all of the different colors you used in that drawing. You worked on it for a really long time. Tell me more about it.” “You were patting the kitty so gently. I can tell she liked it, because she was purring.” “You tried, and you tried, and you did it!” “I noticed you shared your snack with your friend today.” Say thank you, and give specific, meaningful feedback about what you see, what you hear, what you appreciate, and what you notice, especially when your child has really persisted in a task, has acted kindly, or has co-operated with you in some way. It’s always appropriate to thank your child when they co-operate with a request.
Do you see how this is different than offering vague, blanket statements that don’t have a lot of meaning? Each of the above examples shows thought, and tells your child you are really paying attention. Noticing and appreciating is different from issuing a blanket “Good job.” Janet Lansbury suggests that what children most want and need from loving adults is acknowledgement. She says, “It’s a simple, profound way to reflect our child’s experience and inner self. It demonstrates our understanding and acceptance. It sends a powerful, affirming message… Every thought, desire, feeling — every expression of your mind, body and heart — is perfectly acceptable, appropriate and lovable.” Isn’t that the message we really hope to give children when we praise them?
Research has shown that excessive praise and incentives like sticker charts and rewards do nothing to motivate children to learn. In fact, over time, they decrease a child’s willingness and ability to engage in desired behaviors and activities for the sheer joy of learning and refining a skill, and the internal rewards associated with such activities.
Children can become hooked on outside evaluation and praise, and begin to doubt their own internal self evaluation. They begin to ask,”Why should I do this? What’s in it for me? What do I get if I do or don’t do xyz?” “Who’s watching?” Believe me, you don’t want a seven year old who says to you, “What do I get if I clean up my room? Can we go to Disney World?” (This is real quote by the way!)
For a really eye opening and thoughtful discussion of this issue, I always suggest Alfie Kohn’s book, Punished By Rewards. For a shorter version of the topics discussed in the book see 5 Reasons To Stop Saying Good Job.
Now it’s your turn to tell me what you think!