Yes, I really did mean “against”.
How can praise be a bad thing you ask? Everyone likes a pat on the back – right? Isn’t approval a basis human desire? We are led to believe that without praise children will not develop self esteem – the buzz word of previous decades and the foundation upon which both parenting and teaching are often based in today’s world. In fact, many of the “experts” in the field of both education and parenting encourage praise, never implying that it can be anything but constructive.
Lest I be misunderstood as something of a “curmudgeon” opposed to nurturing children, I deliberately distinguish praise from positive feedback or expressions of love and encouragement. What I’m suggesting here is that we examine why, and how we praise children and the effects of praise on the child.
Why we praise
- To enhance child’s learning or performance related to academics, sports, etc.
- To achieve a desired behavior
- To promote positive values
- To promote self-esteem
There are no studies that indicate that praise correlates with achievement. In fact the opposite is often the case. Visit a Montessori class and you will notice a distinct absence of generic praise from the teachers. What you will notice are children of all ages and abilities, engaged in purposeful activities with a true love and joy for learning
How we praise
- Positive but superficial comments e.g. “Good work!” “Nice job!”
- Excessive praise for behavior or accomplishments that are quite mundane, e.g. “I am so proud of you for putting away your shoes. You are such a good girl!”
This kind of “phony” praise that is not spontaneous or given out of true delight will appear contrived. Even young children can detect when praise is insincere or given with an objective in mind. For example, most praise given to children in this manner is manipulative and designed to encourage them to do what we want as teachers or parents.
Effects of praise
- The child may feel he/she is being controlled.
- The child becomes dependent on adult approval
- Praise can hinder creativity if children do only what is required to receive verbal rewards
- Extensive research indicates that praise can undermine intrinsic motivation and lower interest in a subject or task
This generally gives a child a false sense of her own abilities. The child who receives praise for every achievement or every effort will run the risk of growing up to expect the same in adult life. Ask any high school teacher or college professor today what happens when students, used to continuous praise, believe they deserve a higher grade. Many will tell you that students will ask them to change their grade, after all they stayed up late one night to finish that paper (forfeiting fun with their friends) or that the grade isn’t fair because they “worked really hard” – never mind that the results were not all that good!
The child who is praised unduly or without merit may grow up to be the employee who wants a pat on the back for the most basic of expectations. Should arriving to work on time be acknowledged or rewarded? Does doing the job for which one is hired deserve daily praise least one feel unappreciated? Who wants such an employee who is not willing to put forth expected effort, never mind additional effort, if there is no verbal reward at the end?
- Instead of giving praise (or trophies) to children for merely participating in a sport or competition, give positive and concrete feedback that focuses on true effort and skill.
- Applaud your children for initiative, perseverance and sportsmanship.
- Engage your children in conversation about expectations, aspirations, challenges, successes and failures.
- Encourage your children in their endeavors by offering guidance, instruction and support and LOVE.
It would be impossible to do justice to this important subject in a few short paragraphs, but for further reading I recommend, “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn.