If you feel praising a child is helping them feel good about themselves, think again. Praise can be the contaminated carrot, with a stick at the other end.
“Great job!” “Well done!” “Smart boy!” “Good girl!”
Walk into any learning environment with young people and you will invariably hear these glib expressions of praise generously endowed upon children by well-meaning educators, tutors and parents alike. Self-help books in the parenting section of libraries and bookstores expound the virtues of praise to boost a child’s self-esteem, reinforce good behaviour and shape personality. For many children however, praise can be too prematurely interpreted as love and acceptance, and the teacher- and parent-pleasing child may grow up into the emotionally exhausted adult addicted to a steady staple of approval and external validation in order to function.
“When someone abuses me I can defend myself,
but against praise I am defenseless.”
Praise has its dark side and we need to revisit and recalibrate this deeply programmed facet of our parenting philosophy. Alfie Kohn, author of Punished By Rewards, has shown through his extensive research, why praise and punishment are two sides of the same coin — a judgment that parents may unwittingly end up using to control and manipulate their child’s future behaviour.
Many parents genuinely believe that it is the warm feeling they get from “making their child happy” that encourages them to continue to heap on the praise — that kind of response can feel good for a while, but that power to make our children happy is not rightfully ours to have, they need to do it for themselves.
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This does not mean that all compliments and expressions of delight are damaging. We simply need to consider our motives for what we say when we praise, as well as the actual effects they have on our children when we do so. Are our reactions helping the child to feel a sense of control over her life — or to constantly look to us for approval? Does praise motivate children intrinsically to become more excited about learning in its own right — or transform it into something they just want to complete to receive a pat on the back?
How should we praise young children?
Research by Jennifer Henderlong Corpus and Mark Lepper, psychologists who have analysed over 30 years of studies on the effects of praise have given us great insights. They have established that the motivational consequence of praise should be adjusted according to the child’s developmental age. Babies and toddlers thrive on praise that encourages their natural curiosity and promotes independent exploration. Older children however are more complex in their interpretation of praise and question our own possible motives for praising them.
Here are some ways to translate these ideas about effective praise into your everyday life with your child.
1. Avoid inauthentic praise.
Lavish and generic praise is not only meaningless and ineffective; it can also be injurious to your child’s self-esteem. Older children may clue in on the inauthenticity and perceive it to mean that you feel sorry for them, thus sowing the early seeds of quiet shame. Children are more likely to trust praise that requires some degree of keen observation over time and offers judgment-free behaviour-specific evaluation.
For example, “Mark, I’ve noticed how you’re putting in more effort in your compositions. Your handwriting has improved and your vocabulary has expanded since you started reading more.”
Authentic praise conveys a sense of “knowing your child and his struggles” and has a guiding influence, which enhances your relationship with your child.
2. Avoid ‘person praise’ and emphasise ‘process praise.’
The assumption that a high IQ or a superior talent is the key to success, has led many parents and teachers of high achievers to believe that praise such as “you’re a genius” and “you’re a born athlete” are acceptable and serve to maintain peak performance.
But, more than three decades of research shows us otherwise.
An overemphasis on intellect or talent and the notion that such traits are innate and fixed, leaves children vulnerable to failure, sensitive to shame, terrified of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings. They are afraid to do anything that might make them fail and lose your high appraisal.
Other children in a classroom or siblings witnessing praise of this genre bestowed upon the higher achievers might also get the message that intelligence or talent is something that you are born with, a realisation that may lead to apathy and demotivation.
So how do we tweak this understanding to get the desired effect when we apply praise?
Move away from “person praise” to “process praise”, which emphasises effort and strategies and engenders a growth mind-set in children. Avoid praise for low-challenge activities and error-free achievements. Instead tell them success stories that focus on hard work, passion and perseverance. Draw them away from the seduction of flattering platitudes that in the long run kills a child’s natural love for learning.
3. Avoid “social-comparison praise”.
Praising children for out-performing their peers is rampant in Singapore with the overemphasis on marks, and ranking at class and cohort levels. At the national level it reaches a feverish pitch when the PSLE results are released and T-scores are scrutinised for entry into elite secondary schools. It puts children on the relentless treadmill of performance pressure and creates stress, anxiety and hopelessness that can have devastating consequences for the child that is psychologically vulnerable.
The problem with “social-comparison praise” is that it is only motivating for as long as the child continues to finish somewhere at the top. It loses its potency when the child starts to slip and slide on the competitive slope. In essence, children who are reliant on it could become poor losers and give up prematurely. Even worse, they could become so wrapped up in maintaining their competitive perch that they avoid new challenges to minimise risk-taking, and shun opportunities to learn. Why tackle something new and risk failure? Social-comparison praise does not prepare children to cope with failure.
In a classroom situation, I would strongly advise teachers against giving out test papers in the order of marks attained and spending an excessive amount of time showering praise on top achievers at the expense of the majority of the class who may be trying to come to grips with their relatively average results.
I would refrain from displaying graphs that track individual academic performance on class noticeboards. These manipulative classroom practices hope to use shame, described as one of the most dreaded emotional experiences for children, to motivate behaviour change.
Quality time is best devoted to unifying the class and refocusing attention and interest to the correction of mistakes and discerning quality answers from mediocre ones. Create a classroom culture where mistakes are seen as a powerful and enduring source of diagnostic learning and where the intrinsic motivation to better a child’s previous performance overrides competition.
Maria Montessori, the educator best known for the philosophy of education that bears her name, asserts that praising a child not only diminishes his internal drive to do something, it also makes him concentrate on results instead of the mastery of process skills. He becomes governed by the perceptions of others rather than on cultivating his own interior world. Praising children causes them to do things for others instead of for themselves; this is where we see the very successful person on the outside who is unfulfilled, bitter and unhappy on the inside. They have not lived out their own life but someone else’s or the perception of what is “most successful” or “acceptable” in other’s eyes instead of delving deep into themselves and their own desires and passions and living those out.
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Henderlong, J. and Lepper, M. R. (2002). The effects of praise on children’s intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 774–795.
Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
This article was originally published in Singapore’s e-Storm Magazine.