Why It's a Bad Idea to Praise Children

Why praise for children—any praise—is a bad thing.

Posted Feb 06, 2012

As parents, we enjoy praising our children for a lovely crayon drawing of a brown house, a green tree, and a yellow sun. And we enjoy praising them for their effort even if the drawing looks like—well, if we can't really tell what it looks like. 

Some of us also think about the dangers of too much praise, such as giving trophies to everyone on the team, or putting a gold star on every piece of writing, regardless of its quality. On this point, we disagree; some of us like the idea of trophies for everyone, as a way to boost self-esteem and de-emphasize competition, at least for young kids. Others think children should be taught to distinguish between good work and bad.

One authority has a different view from either of these. Namely: All praise is bad. And that's true, in his view, whether the parent or teacher is careful with praise or smothers children in it.

Alfie Kohn, a writer, education critic, and a Psychology Today blogger, has written two books that I consider among the best parenting books I've ever read: Punished by Rewards, and Unconditional Parenting. (I probably shouldn't admit this, but I am stealing freely from the latter for my book, Do Fathers Matter?)

Kohn's argument is that praise is a way of "doing to" a child, rather than "working with" the child. Although we might take some satisfaction in praising our children, Kohn points out—and it doesn't take too much reflection to see his point—that praise is a form of control. We praise drawings or spelling papers because we want our kids to continue to work hard, and to do good work. There's nothing wrong with working hard or doing good work. But what we really want to teach our children, if I'm understanding this correctly, is that they should do good work because of the satisfactions it provides, not to earn praise from parents or teachers. 

His post on this subject is a short encapsulation of his ideas on praise, and it's far more articulate than my attempt here to explain them. And if you want more on this, by all means check out Kohn's post and read the two books I mentioned above.

It's important to note, I think, that this isn't Kohn's hunch, or his philosophy. It's based on a lot of psychological research about the consequences of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Intrinsic rewards are what work provides by itself: If you practice the piano, your intrinsic reward is that you know how to play. Extrinsic rewards are grades, praise, and gold stars. If you practice the piano to get gold stars, what happens when you get older and don't get stars? Do you lose interest in practicing when you've lost extrinsic rewards that you've become accustomed to? The research suggests that you do.

I've often wondered why so few Americans read books—serious novels and nonfiction. Could it be because we were so conditioned to getting A's for reading Melvile or Hawthorne that there is no joy left in reading them for the pleasure and enlightenment they provide? I can't cite research to answer that question, but I think it's a good guess.