Encourage, Don’t Praise Your Child

We parents want to give or children high self-esteem and teach them to distinguish right from wrong. We’ve accepted the fact that too much criticism and punishment can breed resentment and is less effective than rewards. Our parenting culture now leans toward becoming children’s cheerleaders. We give trophies for non-competitive soccer games where there is no scoreboard but every player tracks the goals in their head and on the field with teammates. We don’t miss a chance to say, “Good girl,” or “Good boy,” or “Good Job.” However, the truth is we cannot give our children high self-esteem, and praising children tends to undermine innate motivation.

Psychologists have known for decades that rewarding behavior can increase the frequency of the behavior in a very predictable manner. But there are downsides to rewards. In rats as well as humans, a behavior modified by rewards tends to decrease when the evaluator is not present. Worse yet, rewards deaden children’s innate motivation, an effect we find in math, reading, the arts, and virtually every behavior we’ve studied in a natural setting. It reduces creativity and seems to jar the internal compass, as highly praised children start to train their attention to those with the power, status, and resources to reward and praise, giving away their own judgment and reducing self-monitoring.

Rewards and praise have taken root in our society as useful tools because they are good at modifying narrow, well-defined behaviors. But the fact remains they are not very helpful in producing useful, creative, self-motivated citizens. What to do instead? Encourage, don’t praise. See this February 2007 article in New York magazine for a reporters take on the topic and then consider the methods below for encouraging your child.

Use phrases to demonstrate ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Help your child learn to evaluate her own progress, and make her own decisions. Do not focus on having your child please you. Be specific in your comments.

Examples of encouraging statements and ways *not* to say, “Good job.”:

Way to go!” or “Thumbs up!

It looks like you enjoyed that.

I’m glad you’re pleased with your work.

Those are neat colors that you chose for your picture.

Your whole team seemed to have a blast at that game.

Common times to use these phrases: _almost anytime, in response to artwork, athletics, homework, school projects, or any time you used to say “good job”_.

Use phrases that show CONFIDENCE: Help your child develop willingness to try things, be responsible for her own behavior. Teach him to have the courage to be imperfect.

You can do it!” or “You’ll make it!

You can do hard things.

Knowing you, I’m sure you’ll do fine.

I’m sure you’ll work it out.

I trust your judgement.

I think this agreement on a schedule for quiet/study-time will help us all.

Common times used: joining new activity or group, facing peer or sibling conflicts, when going off and trying a new agreement set with parents or a new job responsibility.

Use phrases of APPRECIATION: Help your child feel that his contribution counts, and her talents and efforts can be used for the good of all, not just personal gain. Help your child learn to feel glad for successes of others as well as for his own successes.

Thanks, you helped a lot.

I really appreciated your cooperation.

I really enjoyed today. Thanks.

I could really use your help on _______________.

I had fun with you at the grocery store today.

Common times used: during family meetings, after chores, after a family outing to the grocery store, after a mass at church, or after any outing that used to involve public tantrums.

Use phrases that recognize EFFORT: Help your child focus on what they can do. Help her recognize improvements in his work and develop persistence on difficult tasks.

You really worked hard on that.

Look at the progress you’ve made.

You spent a lot of time thinking that through.

You’re really improving in these ways: _____________________.

Common times used: in response to homework, report cards, when dealing with children who have attention deficits.