Encouraging Children Without Praise | Column

These days everywhere I go I hear parents, caregivers, and others crying out “Good Job!” to children of all ages. Tiny babies are praised for reaching for a toy or clapping their hands; preschoolers are told “Good Job” when they put on their own shoes or jackets; elementary aged kids are praised for reading aloud or solving a problem; and teens are told “Good Job!” when they do their homework or get themselves off to the school bus on time. Just as books and articles have convinced parents not to spank children or isolate them in “time out” for problematic behavior, the downside of praise is now being examined. Alfie Kohn, author of eight books on the education of children, wrote an interesting article titled FIVE REASONS TO STOP SAYING GOOD JOB! which was published in the journal Young Children. Of course, it’s important to support and encourage children, to love them and show them affection, and to be excited about what they are learning. Let’s think about Kohn’s five reasons not to praise.

Praise is basically the manipulation of children. Praise like tangible rewards (also known as bribes taking the form of cookies, toys, stickers, or car keys) is often an attempt to get kids to do what we, the adults, want them to do. The only thing rewards and praise teach is that kids can get the approval of parents and teachers by doing what the adults want. Children do want to please and are often seeking our approval. Engaging kids in conversation about what they are learning or the affect their behavior is having on others is not only more respectful than praise, it’s more encouraging. We show kids we are truly interested in them, not just in trying to get them to do what we want them to do.

Praise may increase kids’ dependence rather than promoting their self esteem. Sometimes we praise children because we’re pleased with what they’ve done rather than as an attempt to control them. Even so, praise teaches kids to rely on our evaluations and judgments of their accomplishments. Research done at the University of Florida showed that students whose teachers lavished praise on them were more tentative in answering questions and presenting their solutions to problems. They hesitated in sharing their ideas and taking on difficult tasks because they were working for praise rather than the excitement of learning. They were worried about being wrong and having praise withheld.

Children and teens need to feel the pleasure of their own accomplishments and learning. It is a wonderful moment when a child joyfully says, “look what I did!” rather than looking to an adult for an evaluation. We sometimes forget that “Good job!” is just as much a judgment as “Bad job!” Children who are not overly praised tend to take more pleasure in their own learning, whether it’s building a stack of blocks, reading a primer, or writing a term paper.

Praise reduces achievement. It creates pressure to perform rather than encouraging the good feelings that come from self motivation and pleasure in accomplishment. Praise seeking children are less likely to take intellectual and creative risks for fear of losing approval. Kids who are praised for doing a creative task often stumble at their next attempt. The energy needed for creativity is channeled off into seeking praise.

What kids (and indeed all of us) really need is unconditional love and support. We can ask kids to help with thinking of solutions to problems. We can help them see the impact of their behavior on others. We can often say nothing and just let the child enjoy her own accomplishment. We can say what we saw: “you put on your shoes yourself today” or “you used a lot of purple in your picture” or “you decided to write about the Civil War.” Even better is to ask the child to tell us about what they did, saw, or learned: “How did you decide what to write about?” “What was the most fun part of the project?” “How did you decide which colors to use?” We want children to feel a sense of ownership of their work and lives. We want them to feel in control of their own learning and behavior. Encouraging rather than praising helps.