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To Praise or Not to Praise - Is that the new question?

Updated: Jan 6, 2021

Many people, from psychology professionals to educators to child rearers use the concept of positive reinforcement to adjust child behavior. You are sure to hear loud, repeated “good job”s exclaimed, by well-meaning adults, when visiting parks, school sporting events, and family gatherings. However, there is a little discussion about the controversy surrounding the use of operant conditioning techniques. Alfie Kohn, the author of 14 books and countless articles about human behavior, education and parenting, argues against an overabundance of praise. Kohn points out that this does not mean he questions the importance of support, encouragement, love and affection to help children build self-esteem. Kohn claims that offering praise to children manipulates them, creates praise junkies, steals their pleasure, causes disinterest and reduces achievement.

Rheta DeVries, a professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa, shares in Kohn’s view. She reasons, offering praise to a child for performing ordinary tasks is more for the convenience of the adult and is not creating a positive lesson for the child. She further threatens, praise is an exploitation of a child’s need for approval. The Natural Child Project discusses this concept further by breaking down the difference between what they are calling “artificial praise” and “genius praise”. To explain the difference, they use the examples "Tell Grandma thank-you. Good girl!" and "Wow! What a beautiful card you made for me! Thank you!" The key variance between these examples is our intentions as parents. Are you using your approval to control your child’s behavior or are we exclaiming sincere delight? By using praise to control a child’s behavior we are missing opportunities to create a genuine relationship.

Excessive praise can cause a rift in the trust relationship between child and adult. It could also be building a child with an addiction to admiration and cause the child to feel less secure with themselves. Mary Budd Rowe, from the University of Florida, discovered students who received lavish praise from teachers were more apt to answer questions in an unsure voice, backed off from an idea they conjured as soon as an adult disagreed, and were less likely to continue on with difficult tasks or share ideas with their peers.

Not only are we controlling a child’s behavior with praise but we are also controlling their emotions by telling a child when they should feel proud of their accomplishment. In Kohn’s book Motivating Struggling Learners he explainsI want her [his daughter] to share her pleasure with me, not look to me for a verdict. I want her to exclaim, 'I did it!'…instead of asking me uncertainly, ‘Was that good?’” At the end of the parenting day, isn’t that the kind of reaction we all want to see in our child? A child who is confident in their actions, filled with self esteem and pride.

We want that same child, who is proud of their product, to be doing it because it makes them happy not because it makes us happy. Scientific research has shown that the more we reward a child for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in the task. Inevitably the interest is shifted from the actual activity, whether it be drawing, painting or reading, to the reward being received for participating.

To add insult to injury, the phrase “good job” can affect how good of a job a child performs. Why does this happen? Well, it’s a combination of all the effects listed above. Their interest has declined, they have become less likely to take risks and use their creativity, and there has been more pressure created to get praise than to complete the task in a worthy-of-praise manor – praise is almost assured.

Jim Taylor, article writer for Psychology Today, offers advice on how and when to praise a child. Taylor says “you should avoid praising your children about areas over which they have no control.” This includes their intelligence, appearance, and athletic or artistic gifts. Instead, focus on things they can control such as their effort, responsibility, discipline decision making, and generosity. Taylor also suggestions asking questions as an alternative to praise. This allows your child to decide for themselves how they feel about their accomplishments and enables them to reward themselves. He also suggests omitting praise with young children all together. To replace praise, simply highlight what they did instead, omit the “good job” before “you climbed that ladder by yourself.”

Kids know how well they did, let them come to this realization on their own.

It is an adults job to guide a child to reinforce themselves instead of creating a praise junky forever reliant on their reassurance and approval.


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