PRAISE: Positive Reinforcement or Judgement?

Katie walks up to her mom with her latest ‘artwork’ in hand (a very colourful scribble): “Look at my picture. Do you like it?”

Katie’s mom: “Oh wow! It’s beautiful! I love it! Good job sweetheart!!”

Katie thinks any of the following: “She always says that.” “Good, she loves it!” “I made my mom happy.” “I wonder if she really means that.” “I don’t think she means that.” “She always says that.” “She’s lying; it’s not as good as Jamie’s art.” “She’s lying; this was my worst picture ever.” “She didn’t even really look at it.”

Praise, as we know it, doesn’t do the child any favours.  And no, I do not mean to say we should “toughen up” our children, quit letting them know how much we love them or that we can’t show our happiness at their accomplishments.

That begs the question: What is praise?

Why are we judging our kids? Why do we need to regularly let them know that we approve (or don’t!)? What happens when they leave the nest – who’s going to give them the continuous approval they have become accustomed to and need? How can we judge the value and merit of their process?

You might be thinking – Kids need praise to build and grow their self-confidence and self-esteem!

The problem is that praise is very tricky. Even the best intended praise brings unexpected and mostly less favourable reactions.

You’ve probably discovered for yourself some of the built-in problems of praise. Along with some good feelings can come other reactions. Praise can: [1]

  • …make you doubt the praiser. (“If she thinks I’m a good cook, she’s either lying or knows nothing about good food.”)
  • …lead to immediate denial. (“Always beautifully dressed! … You should have seen me an hour ago.”)
  • …be threatening. (“But how will I look at the next meeting?”)
  • …force you to focus on your weaknesses. (“Brilliant mind? Are you kidding? I still can’t add a column of figures.”)
  • …create anxiety and interfere with activity. (“I’ll never be able to hit the ball like that again. Now I’m really uptight.”)
  • …also be experienced as manipulation. (“What does this person want from me?”)

Alfie Kohn provides some more insight in his article: Five Reasons to Stop Saying: “Good Job!”

“Lest there be any misunderstanding, the point here is not to call into question the importance of supporting and encouraging children, the need to love them and hug them and help them feel good about themselves. Praise, however, is a different story entirely.”

According to Kohn, our praise does the following:

  1. Manipulates children
  2. Creates praise junkies
  3. Steals a child’s pleasure
  4. Can cause a child to lose interest
  5. Reduces achievement

So what do we do then? What do we say? Here are some tips and guidelines:

  • Whatever you say, make sure you are sincere and that it comes from a place of genuine affection instead of being a convenient answer or a pacifying answer.
  • Sometimes you can simply be quiet and nod. Use “Hmm” and “ah”.
  • Don’t evaluate!! Instead of evaluating, describe:
    • Describe what you see. (“I see a clean floor, a smooth bed, and books neatly lined up on the shelf.”)
    • Describe what you feel. (“It’s a pleasure to walk into this room!”)
    • Sum up the child’s praiseworthy behavior with a word. (“You sorted out your pencils, crayons and pens, and put them in separate boxes. That’s what I call organization!”)

Some pointers:

  • Keep your praise appropriate to your child’s developmental state, emotional level and personality
  • Avoid praise that hints at past weaknesses and failures
  • Don’t overdo your enthusiasm – too much can interfere with your child’s desire to accomplish for him/herself
  • Be prepared for repetition of the same activity when you describe what a child is doing
  • Try not to say “I’m proud of you”, even if you are. It’s not about you, it’s about your child. Try “are you proud of yourself?; I think you could be proud of yourself”
  • Careful with statements like “I knew you could do it”, “I’m not surprised”. You are a supportive parent, not a prophet. Rather try something like ” That took a lot of work/determination/practice/effort etc.

There’s so much more that could be said about this topic. It’s a complex topic, but one that, at Freerange, we take very seriously. It’s so beautiful to see kids finally starting to praise themselves instead of constantly looking to someone else to validate them.

I hope you can find some value in this post. Please feel free to share your thoughts!

[1] Faber, Adele and Mazlish, Elaine. How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk. London, Picadilly Press Ltd, 2001.