Updated: Oct 5, 2021
There has been more and more talk about praise recently and whether we should be praising our kids at all. We have been through a stage where parents were told to give their kids lots of praise and to catch them being "good". We have all heard over and over again "good job", "good girl/boy" and all sorts of general terms. Now we are being told that we shouldn't be doing it and that praise can actually be harmful. So, is praise bad?
Research has definitely shown that not all praise is good. There are aspects of some praise that can actually be damaging. But this doesn't mean that we stop speaking positively to our kids, they still need encouragement but we do need to be more specific with our praise.
Why Some Praise doesn't Work
If we say things to our kids such as "you're so smart" or "you're so clever", we are not showing recognition of the effort needed to achieve. Research has shown that children who receive this praise for intelligence are actually less likely to succeed. Children who believe that they are "smart", also believe that they should do well without effort. There is no intrinsic motivation to try, as they feel that this should happen without them having to work at it. Other research has also found that children who are told that they are "smart" are less likely to take risks in fear that they may "fail". The belief is, if they fail they will no longer be "smart", "clever" or whatever they have been told (Dweck, 1998; Brummelman, 2014). when we use these general labels we also send the message that people are either "smart/talented" or not. There is no room for improvement or getting better if it is something you don't have control over. Ultimately children will feel helpless to change.
Praise can also seem conditional and controlling. If we say "good girl/" does that mean when we don't praise them then they are "bad". It leaves a child feeling as though their acceptance is dependent on their behaviour and not them as a person. When we use praise as a way to control behaviour, chances are kids will push against it. Manipulation gets resistance even if it is through praise. At around the age of 5 years, kids can tell when your praise is sincere or just a way to get them to do what you want (Mizokawa, 2018).
So, if praise is just a blanket label such as "good boy/girl" or is focused on ability alone such as "you are so smart", then chances are it won't work and it might just have the opposite outcome we were hoping for. It can also damage our relationship with our children as they feel that acceptance is conditional on our praise.
So what should we do?
Focus on Effort: When we praise our kids make sure that we are praising the effort it took to achieve, not just the achievement. You can say "I noticed you tried to sound out those words and didn't give up" or "wow, you worked hard on that", rather than "you are such a good reader". When we focus on the effort our children feel like they have made progress. This builds their self-esteem because this was something that they were able to put in the effort and get an outcome. It also means that they see that with effort comes progress, they become motivate to do things for themselves.
Be Honest: We aren't doing our kids any favours by telling them that we think they were the best runner even though they lost in the race. It is okay to tell the truth, if it is done in a productive way. The child might not have done well because they are younger and smaller than the others in the class. You might know that the kid who won goes for a run every day and practices. Maybe your child didn't practice at all and has no interest in running. If we point out honestly why they may not have done well, then that can give them opportunity to improve. But again be careful of blanket labels, don't say "you just aren't a runner" or "I can't run either". That doesn't give room for improvement or the need for effort.
When we say "thank you" to our children they feel appreciated. When we feel appreciated and valued, we feel better about ourselves. All of us, whether a child or an adult are going to do more of something that makes us feel appreciated. Instead of saying "good job cleaning your room" you could say "thank you for cleaning your room, I really appreciate it". When we do this kids also see how what they do impacts others and that the impact can be really positive for everyone.
The biggest motivator for our kids is going to be our connection with them and our time. A child is going to feel more confidence in their ability if we spend time with them in what they are doing, rather than a throw away praise comment. If we sit with a child while they draw a picture and talk to them about the colours they used or what the picture was about, they will gain so much more from this than a "good drawing". When we give our support and show interest in what they are doing, there is no need to praise the outcome, they are already receiving what they need doing the task by having you connect with them.
So, is praise bad? Well some forms of praise can actually be harmful or at least counter productive. When we give general praise statements or focus on ability, we actually reduce motivation, negatively impact self-esteem and even cause our kids to rebel against what we are trying to encourage. However, when we focus on the effort, be honest with them, show gratitude and build connection, our children are more likely to build their self-esteem and ultimately be more motivated.