Can Praise Be Harmful to Children?
By Mike Brooks, Ph.D
It seems like it is common wisdom to praise our kids for things like
their athletic skills, musical ability, intelligence, creativity,
talent, and so on. We want them to internalize all of our praise and
have high self-esteem, right? Interestingly, the research does not bear
this out. Praising kids for things that are not directly under their
control, like intelligence, can backfire.
Sure, we can improve our cognitive abilities (to a fairly large extent)
through our efforts. Research in neuroscience has shown that the brain
is remarkably plastic -But when we praise our kids with statements such
as "Wow! You are SO smart!", we are not praising their efforts. We are
praising an attribute as if it were a quality that is etched in stone.
Praise children for their effort
Psychologists have devised a number of ingenious experiments to test the
idea that praising kids for attributes such as intelligence helps them
have high self-esteem. The idea is that having high self-esteem can help
children to persevere when they encounter challenges. What researchers
are finding is that when kids are praised as being "smart" they are more
likely to give up when encountering challenges. The psychologists
hypothesize that such children are faced with a dilemma when they
encounter these challenges. They say to themselves, "If I'm so smart,
why am I having difficulties with this?" Rather than relinquishing the
idea that they are smart, these children often give up more quickly. In
essence, they are trying to protect their ego.
In contrast, effort is something that is more directly under our
control. Children who are praised for their effort and perseverance tend
to want to keep working when they encounter challenges. The praise
reinforces the children's efforts and, because there are more likely to
keep working on challenging tasks, these children also are more likely
to experience success on difficult tasks. In effect, they get two
rewards - the praise from the adult and the reward of completing a
Ironically, children praised for their intelligence and other attributes
(e.g., athletic ability, musical talent) with the goal of trying to
increase their self-esteem are more likely to give up, which undermines
their self-esteem. So, try to focus on praising your children's efforts
rather than trying to bolster their self-esteem through just telling
them how smart or athletic they are. This helps them to learn to focus
their energy on what they can most directly control...their effort.
Be specific about the praise you give your children
Often we assume that, when we say "good job," little Billy knows to what
we are referring. Billy might not have a clue. For example, if you
exclaim "Wonderful job!" to Billy after he finishes a soccer game, how
is he to know what you are talking about? Is it because he tried hard?
Is it because he demonstrated good sportsmanship by helping an injured
player? Is it because he passed the ball a lot to his teammates? If you
are praising Billy in hopes that it encourages him to do more of that
action in the next game, he needs to know what you mean.
Imagine if the performance review from your boss consisted of the words
"GOOD JOB!" scrawled across the page. How helpful...or rewarding...would
that be? Praise should provide some specific information that allows
children to know exactly what they are doing well so they can choose to
do more of that behavior the next time. Generic praise, in addition to
not being informative, becomes very bland and children begin to lose
interest in what you are saying.
Again, imagine if your boss praised you in the exact same way every
time...and used that same praise with everyone else. After a while, you
would probably tune him/her out. Help kids know what they are doing
right by being specific in your use of praise. Ensure that you have
variety as well. Use hand signals, pats on the back, different wording,
various vocal inflections, and so on. This will allow kids the ability
to use the information that you convey more effectively. Remember, it
doesn't guarantee that they do what you want, but at least they have
what they need to make a more informed choice about their behavior.
Use the "principle of opposites"
What is the most annoying behavior of your child? Does he frequently
interrupt you? Does she have trouble complying with directions? What
ever behavior it is, find its opposite...that's the one that you really
want to see more of anyway. Instead of giving most of your attention to
a particular behavior of your child that annoys you, you "catch him"
behaving well in the opposite area. Then, give him specific praise.
"Billy, I really appreciate how you put away your toys right when I
asked." Remember, don't just say "good job" when Billy puts his toys
away...that's not specific enough.
This takes practice - you will be breaking your old habit of repeatedly
attending to your child's negative behavior. Maybe even put a post-it
note on your bathroom mirror to remind yourself. Enlist your significant
other's support and help each other out so you can create a new habit.
You'll find that you're much less negative toward your child AND it is
likely that your child's behavior will improve in that area that has
been so troublesome.
Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes
By Alfie Kohn
The basic strategy we use for raising children, teaching students, and managing workers can be summarized in six words:
Do this and you'll get that. We dangle goodies (from candy bars to sales commissions) in front of people in much the same
way we train the family pet. Drawing on a wealth of psychological research, Alfie Kohn points the way to a more successful
strategy based on working with people instead of doing things to them.
"Do rewards motivate people?" asks Kohn. "Yes. They motivate people to get rewards." Seasoned with humor and familiar
examples, Punished By Rewards presents an argument unsettling to hear but impossible to dismiss.
Austin Counseling can help you or your child overcome difficulties in life. If you are in Austin, head
over to ApaCenter and have a mental health professional help you discover possibilities for growth and change.