How Praise Can Diminish Children
I would never ever tell a parent to stop praising their child, BUT what if I told you that liberal praise that is vague and insincere will probably end up harming our children in surprising ways? Rather than building confidence with praise, we actually teach children to be afraid to take on challenge, be afraid to disappoint, be afraid to fail, and be afraid to commit. Not only that, overpraising a child can lead to a depressed and confused adult. So while I would never say all praise is wrong, if we begin making some intentional adjustments in the way we speak to our children, it can have bold and positive results!
Before we really get started, let’s back up a bit. If we’re honest, we all had the same conversations with our newborns in our arms, promising them that we would always listen to them, be fair, and we would let them know every day how wonderful they were and how much they were loved. Our relationship would be deep and close. Their childhood would be different from our own. If we’re honest, parents could agree that what we want most for our children is that they grow up to be happy, and we would do anything we could to make it happen.
We clapped our hands when our baby first rolled over, sat up and stood. Their first steps were a big celebration. We were so happy for them, but children quickly learn to perform for us rather than themselves. They learn just how to engage us and make our hearts flutter. It make us feel loved when a young child runs to us with their picture and says that it’s for our refrigerator. Look, they even used our favorite color! They so desperately want to please! Is that so wrong?
The Problem With Praise
For Young Children
Praise is certainly a well-meaning and positive approach, but it puts the child’s focus on our approval. We compliment a young child’s clothing, muscles, quickness, singing, drawing, and behavior in an effort to build self-esteem and confidence. If you are not sure if your child is motivated by praise, listen to them: “Mom, look at me.” “Do you like it?” “Mom, what color should I use next?” “Is this a good picture?” “Watch this.” “My mom wants me to make her a card.” “Do you think Daddy will like it?” “Look how fast I can run.” Young children who are used to praise are constantly looking up from their activity to see if you are watching, asking for feedback, want to be right, and want others to be happy with them.
If you are unsure whether you praise too often, try to stop making comments and guiding your young child’s decisions for a few days. Stop answering each and every question as soon as it pops out of their mouth. It will probably be hard for you to do, but it may be much more difficult for your child. Watch how they react without any outside approval. If they seem mad, confused, or even scared without your feedback and suggestions, your child may very well be a “Praise Junkie.”
Although the negative outcomes of overpraising become more serious as children grow, studies cited in Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, have shown that even preschoolers will choose easier tasks so that they can be “right” rather than challenged. Children who are constantly told how “smart” they are begin to discount the importance of effort, and feel that achievement is dependent solely on natural talent rather than work. Preschoolers begin to label their friends (and presumably themselves) as “smart” or “not smart.” Furthermore, following a failure, they may quit trying altogether. They see the failure as evidence that they weren’t really very smart after all, so why fail again? Praise can have the opposite effect of what we intend.
For Grade School Children
Up until about the age of seven, children take praise at face value. If you say their Incredible Hulk belt is “super cool”, they believe you. Soon after age seven, however, children see through our praise. In fact, around fifth grade, children have clearly picked up on the pattern of praise. They see that praise gets heaped on the students who are not strong so they won’t feel bad. They eventually come to believe that criticism from a teacher is actually a positive signal that the teacher believes they can do better. I guess kids are smart!
Parents and teachers who praise older children are often prone to rescue them from mistakes, hurry to suggest solutions, and save them from struggle and conflicts. We constantly say, “Great Job!” “Did you remember your homework?” “You are so smart.” or overreact with surprise, delight (and sometimes cash) about grades, wins, art, and other successes.
Here’s a question: If we automatically praise all things, what do we say when our child actually loses a game? Misbehaves? Gets a D? Do we still tell them they did a “Good Job?” or give them an excuse to use like, “It’s OK. You were really tired.” If we tell them not to worry about it and change the subject, they learn that mistakes are not opportunities for learning, or even worse that they are too embarrassing to discuss. If we jump in to tell them how to fix it next time, we give one more message: they have to look outside themselves for new ideas. They aren’t smart enough to figure it out. Are we unintentionally telling them we don’t have faith that they will survive a mistake or disappointment without our help? This is getting serious now.
Children also get plenty of praise in conventional schools, in the form of rewards. We think children learn best with positive incentives like stickers, ribbons, trophies, and popcorn parties. There is clear research that demonstrates that external rewards extinguish a child’s natural instinct for challenge, collaboration, innovation, and divergent thinking. They go for the highest test score, or the popcorn, and don’t care about the learning process. Listen to older children ask, “Is this going to be on the test?” or “Are we getting grading on this?” Sadly, the light in their eyes that was so bright as a younger child has already dimmed. Their inner drive and love of learning has been extinguished by praise and rewards.
That is sad enough, but it gets worse. Research also has shown that especially children who are frequently praised in the home, tend to become very competitive and invested in maintaining their image. By middle school, they can go to the extent of tearing down others and cheating to keep their status. It is the opposite consequence of what many of us would expect from children who were sheltered from conflict and rewarded for everything since birth. Praise does not create soft and unmotivated people. It creates insecure children who rely heavily on external approval for their self worth.
If your older child will only dream things that are “safe” from failure, or only have hobbies where they can “achieve” or win ribbons, your child may very well be a “Praise Junkie.”
For Young Adults
Finally, remember the newborn you held in your arms? The child you just wanted to be happy? A child who has been showered with constant praise while growing up has learned a great deal from it. Praise has taught him to avoid conflict, mistakes, disappointment and challenge because they are not seen as the opportunities for learning that they actually are. Praise has taught him to look to others for his opinions, material things for his happiness, and it has excused away his poor choices.
In 2007, UNICEF shared a global study that declared that American youth were the second unhappiest population of children in the world. Read more. They were depressed and felt a lack of control. How can that possibly be? Haven’t you seen their bedrooms full of trophies and awards?
Here’s What I Think
I’m guessing none of us want to look back and think that we contributed to an unmotivated and fearful child because we used too much praise. On the other hand, I certainly don’t want to be the adult who withholds all compliments and positive comments from the children in my life. That’s not right. I don’t agree that praise is never useful. Specific and sincere praise can be effective and motivating according to research that I’ve read, and according to my gut. I realize this is a complicated topic, and there is a fine balance of wanting your child to care what the world thinks of them without losing their inner voice.
So, in an effort to be smarter about this, I have a list to stop and think about before I automatically start praising…
- Don’t say a word. Just let the child be, or…
- Be Quite Specific. Tell your child more than,”You read that really well.” Say, “You read the words with lots of feeling today. Your voice sounded very mad in the voice of the bear.”
- Notice things your child does, but don’t evaluate them. “You fell down, but got right up again.” “You put your cereal bowl in the sink and rinsed it out. Thanks.” “You spent a long time with that toy.” When you pay attention and notice, it encourages them.
- Be sure your child understands from a young age that the brain grows bigger when it’s exercised. You get smarter when you work to learn hard things.
- Be sure your child sees a challenge as an opportunity, or gift. Don’t save them from being accountable. Show faith.
- Model or think out loud about how you work through “hard things.” (Remember, children don’t need to hear about the really hard things, though).
- Let your child feel frustration, loneliness, pressure, and work through it for a while. If you jump in to fix it, it robs them of learning. It’s like telling them the answer to their math problem.
- Wait for an invitation before you give help.
- Helping is really asking lots of questions. “How did you feel when she said that?” “Tell me what you think.” “Who could you ask?” “What could you try now?” “Let me know how it goes.”
- “I Statements” are good, but if that’s all you use, they don’t learn to listen to what “They Want.” Try, “Blue makes me feel happy. What color makes you feel good? Why?”
I guess the bottom line is that we need to respect the inner voices of our children, and stop interrupting them all day long with praise, so that they can learn to listen to their own wisdom.