What Every Parent Needs to Know About Praise

How to shift your dialogue from judging to loving.

Posted Jul 31, 2013

"An impressive body of scientific research has shown that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Now the point isn’t to draw, to read, to think, to create – the point is to get the goody, whether it’s an ice cream, a sticker, or a 'Good job!'"-- Alfie Kohn

If you think you should always praise your kids, you may be surprised to hear that studies show praise often backfires.

Research shows that kids who receive money for grades stop taking joy in a job well done and operate in single-minded pursuit of the monetary reward, even to the point of being more likely to cheat. And praise, given its potency as a reward, has similar effects to tangible rewards. So:

  • Kids who are praised for reading learn that reading isn't inherently rewarding -- so they're less likely to read independently.
  • Kids who are praised for eating vegetables learn that vegetables aren't inherently delicious -- they need to come with a spoonful of sugar in the form of praise.
  • Kids who are praised for sharing begin to share less when they think adults aren't watching, because they have apparently learned from the praise that no one in their right mind would share out of the goodness of their heart.

Most parents know that negative judgements undermine children, and at least try to bite their tongue instead of saying "What?! Are you an idiot?!" But positive judgements like "What a smart boy!" also sabotage children. Kids who are told they're smart don't want to disprove it, so they avoid situations in which they may not appear so smart, such as learning new things they might have to work at. They often simply give up at a task they could master with a little effort. (By contrast, when we comment on kids' effort -- "You are really working at that" -- they work harder.)

Maybe worst of all, studies show that kids who are praised a lot conclude that someone is constantly evaluating their performance. They become much more insecure about expressing their own ideas and opinions, worried about whether they will measure up. I suspect that our culture of praise also breeds competition and sibling rivalry: "What about me? Isn't my picture good, too?" Praise teaches children that their value comes from outside them.

To review, Praise:

  • Makes it less likely that children will independently practice the behaviors they are praised for.
  • Undermines kids' self-confidence.
  • Turns them into praise junkies by teaching them to look for outside feedback to feel okay.
  • Robs kids of their joy in their accomplishments.
  • Keeps kids from applying themselves for fear they won't live up to the praise.

But that doesn't mean you can't engage positively with your child. All kids thrive on our unconditional positive regard. That's just a fancy way of saying that all children need to feel seen--really seen for who they are--as well as appreciated and encouraged. For example:

1. Notice your child and let him know you're really seeing him.

"I notice you're working really hard on that puzzle...I see your strategy is that you're doing the sides first."

2. Empathize with her excitement.

"Wow, look at you up there!"

3. Encourage effort and practice, not results.

"You're working so hard on that....Just a little more practice and you'll nail it!"

4. Empower by pointing out the results of her behavior.

"Look how happy your friend is to have a turn with your toy."

5. Express your own feelings, including gratitude.

"I love it when we work as a team like this! Thanks so much for helping me."

Notice the difference? You're not judging your child. You're loving him. As Deepak Chopra says, "Love is attention without judgment. In its natural state, attention only appreciates." That's the kind of attention your child needs.