Beware of Praise

by Heligirl on March 26, 2010

in Parenting Articles

Earlier this week I attended a Compassionate Parenting class, the last in a set of three, offered through my co-op preschool program. This class is based very much on the Sanity Circus class I took last year. It is basically the Positive Discipline curriculum, but the small print says the instructor can’t call it that if it isn’t taught by the founding organization, so, alas, she calls it Compassionate Parenting. Regardless of title, the information is exceptionally valuable and much the same. It’s also a much smaller group and includes discussion and group participation, which really helps. For me, it was an excellent refresher, and let’s face it, we all need refreshers. I’m always about to fall off the wagon so these are exceptionally valuable.

One item covered in last week’s class resonates deeply with me. It’s the topic of Praise versus Encouragement. It has been researched and shown that excessive praise is not only bad for children, but it causes a serious issue with their ability to assess their own self worth throughout life.

During the Sanity Circus series, the instructor referred to an article in Forbes that explained how the current generation of young people entering the work force need so much outside validation (praise) compared to the generations before that managers are having to learn how to provide it to get their employees to perform (Sorry I don’t have the exact article). All those “good job” and “good girl” and “good boy” comments are teaching kids to look outside themselves for validation that they did well. They don’t know how to look at their own accomplishments and evaluate for themselves that they’ve done well.

So how did praise cause this issue? Our class did this interesting roll playing scenario where the teacher sat one of us down and gave the rest of us a bunch of phrases to say to him. The first group of us said things like “you’re such a good boy, I like the way you’re sitting, you did it right, I’m so proud of you, you did it just like I told you.” Then the other side said things like “I notice how quiet you’re being, I appreciate your help, thank you for putting your blocks away, look at what you can do.”

In the end, our poor guinea pig said he felt good by what the first group was saying, but it also felt rather empty. He said he felt more empowered by the second group, and it felt that second group was also more interested in him as a person. He felt prouder of himself when listening to the second group. The instructor went on to explain a childhood filled with praise focused on telling the child he was good if he did what was expected left him insecure about his abilities and needing praise to perform. However, children raised with encouragement learn to see the value in their own skills and behavior (because parents are commenting on it, modeling for the children how to see the value in what they accomplish). Kids will hear it so much that they’ll develop their own encouraging internal dialog, further building their self reliance and self esteem.

When you break it down, it really does make sense why encouraging children is far more powerful than praising them. Look at it this way. Praise is evaluation by others (“I like it”) that addresses the doer rather than the deed (“good boy”). It emphasizes conformity (“you did it right”) by using “I” messages (“I like the way you’re sitting”). It’s really easy to just say “good boy, I’m proud of you, well done, nice job, etc.” It basically focuses on your judgment and acceptance of the child himself based on his behavior. In time, he subconsciously wonders if he is in fact still a good boy if you don’t say it.

Conversely, encouragement inspires children by focusing more on the specifics of the deeds, letting the child feel his or her actions were noticed and appreciated, rather than judged. Encouragement addresses the deed (“thank you for putting your dishes in the sink”) which is far more personal than a simple “good boy.” Encouragement also asks questions to help children come up with the answer themselves, “how do we talk in the library?” (Praise doesn’t offer growth options. It’s only an external person’s opinion of you.)

The class mentioned the three main kinds of this encouragement:

  • Descriptive Encouragement: “I noticed”¦.” – you have to think through this one, come up with something valuable and it really makes the child feel good, which encourages repeat behavior. For instance, today when Sweetness got to daycare, she took off her coat and shoes (as per daycare rules) when she walked in the door and put them where they were supposed to go without me having to say anything to remind her. I dropped to my knee to be down at her level and said “Sweetie, I noticed how you took off your coat and shoes and put them away just like you were supposed to. Thank you so much.” She gave me this huge smile and hugged me. Nothing can beat that!
  • Appreciative Encouragement: “I appreciate”¦” – again, this takes some work to think of something valid. “I appreciate the time you took to go back outside and put your toys in the shed. Thank you.” I’m always adding a thank you to these statements. They make them feel more real and respectful to me. Might be that I always wanted someone to say that to me when I was a kid, but I was told “Don’t expect a thank you for things you’re expected to do.” I still resent that.
  • Empowering Encouragement: “I have faith, I believe, I trust”¦” – these are more for when you’re trying to encourage action. “I believe you can do it. I have faith that you’ll figure it out.” The “I trusts” always sound so condescending to me so I don’t use them – “I trust you’ll find a way.” I also add “I know”¦” because I feel it expresses my belief in the child: “I know you can do it.”

If this sounds rather ambiguous, don’t worry. There are a lot of blurry lines as well as debate about what is really praise and what is encouragement. I found that if I ask myself questions like the following, I feel pretty good that I’m being encouraging rather than praising:

Am I inspiring self evaluation or dependence on the evaluation of others?

Am I being respectful or patronizing?

Am I being specific in my comments?

Am I addressing the deed or the child?

And don’t feel if you slip up you’ve destroyed your child’s chances of staying out of jail or that she’ll drive her future employers crazy with her insecurity, destroying the chances she’ll be promoted. You’re going to say “great job” or “good boy/girl” without thinking about it. Just jump in with a qualifier to make it more valuable. “Good boy. You pet the dog so nicely. See how he likes it? He’s wagging his tail he’s so happy.” In time it won’t feel right to say those empty praise phrases all the time.

And finally, when used sparingly, there is a great place for praise. If you’ve been watching your child try to achieve something really important to him or her, like that first step or that first try without training wheels and you just burst out with a fully excited “Great job, I’m so proud of you!!” don’t start flogging yourself. Praise like this is genuine and the kids know that. I’ve done it, and I admit I catch myself and add something like “you’ve worked so hard for that you must feel so proud too!” If you save praise for those special, gut bursting excited moments because you really are genuinely proud at that moment, it remains a powerful thing for you both.


Paul March 27, 2010 at 5:16 am

Thanks for sharing this Heligirl!

Henriette Karpf March 27, 2010 at 8:55 am

This blog is great. How did you come up with the idea?

Peter June 1, 2010 at 4:38 am

You have described this issue so well.
Praise is an empty filler, if that makes sense, and gives the receiver no concrete indication of what is being praised. By putting a little effort into your comments, you can be specific, and say something about behaviour that can be evaluated and repeated in the future.

Kris January 17, 2011 at 9:21 am

I think I had missed this one – thank you for the link again. I totally agree with this and will be gin adjusting my encouragement to more align with these – at age 1.5 I’m trying to set my methods now!!
Kris recently posted: weekend fun jan 13-17

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