Because I follow the brilliant Janet Lansbury on Facebook, I have come across several interesting posts about praise recently. In one of those, Lisa Sunbury of Regarding Baby shared her thoughts in Praise Not , a read I would recommend. All this reading got me thinking about praise.
It can be a tricky subject, the whole debate about praise and rewards. I’ve posted about it in the past in a panel discussion and I’ve also written about the potential for backfire when we rely too much on praise (see Praise Junkies Beware).
I wrote about it in my ebook, and I teach about it in classes. It can be a tricky subject to comprehend. You hear people saying you shouldn’t praise your kids, and suddenly you’re left wondering, “So what can I say?”
I usually explain it by teaching about the difference between encouragement and judgment. The terminology is less important. Feel free to call it what you like. The important thing is how you do it, not what you call it.
Praise and Judgment
Praise becomes a problem when it is administered too liberally, meaninglessly, and generically. It backfires when it’s used as a label or when children are manipulated or conditioned to seek outward approval.
But a problem arises when adults learn about the down side of praise and ride the pendulum all the way to the other side trying to censor themselves, resisting every urge to say anything that might possibly be kind of sort of like praise. No more compliments, no more high fives. That might be taking it a bit far.
There is great power in positive reinforcement, and as I meantioned earlier, it isn’t so much about what you call it, it’s how you do it. Here are some tips I share in my ebook and classes to help adults recognize how to give encouragement (or effective praise, if that makes you feel better).
I think this quote from Robert Martin draws a great contrast between encouragement and praise:
“Taking an interest in what people are thinking and doing is often a much more powerful form of encouragement than praise.”
Encouragement is more about acknowledging and taking a sincere interest and less about labeling people, efforts, or work with your own judgment.
So back to the question, what do you say?
Make your comments sincere. Don’t shovel out accolades for commonplace things. If you sincerely appreciate how a child carefully hangs up his jacket, say so. “Thank you for hanging your coat up. That sure helps keep the cubby area clean.” But if you dish out overenthused comments children will sniff out your lack of sincerety. (“Oh, awesome job! You are the most amazing coat-hanger-upper I’ve ever seen!”)
The generic “Good Job” gives no feedback. It doesn’t help a child know what behavior you’re referring to. And, overused, it eventually carries no meaning at all. Be specific and descriptive with your comments. Even, “Good listening” gives less information than, “You sat with your body still and your eyes right on me. It looked like you were working very hard to listen carefully.”
Be careful about passing out labels. Responding to a child with “That’s awesome!” seems harmless enough, but handing out such a label may actually reinforce work that the child thinks was sub-par and done with little effort.
Labeling with your own judgment also conditions children to seek their value from the opinions of others. These pattern of people-pleasing can lead to plenty of struggles down the road.
Instead of emphasizing your opinion, ask what they think. “Tell me about what you did at circle time today.” “Tell me about your painting.” “Wow, you used a lot of blocks in this structure. Tell me about it.” All of these comments show genuine interest, allow the child to evaluate his/her own work (which enhances executive functions), and will give you more insight into a child’s thoughts, passions, and capabilities.
Recognize Effort and Progress, Not Just the End Product
When you really think about what you’re encouraging, it isn’t the outcome — the outstanding work, the happy child. You’re actually trying to encourage the work it takes to get there. So comment on and take interest in that work.
“You’ve really stuck with that. You’re working really hard.” “It looks like that’s getting a little easier. You must have been practicing.”
You want children to understand it isn’t about who they are but what they consistently do that’s important. So genuinely emphasize the actionable work they do, get their input, and be interested without being judgemental. You’ll find the influence these responses have on the children you love and teach are more effective and more positive for your child’s development.
What do you think? How do offer encouragement in a healthy way?
I think this is key. We all offer encouragement to one another, our spouses, our friends, and we don’t want to stop doing that with our children. We just want to be genuine in those interactions. That happens as you said, when you take an interest, ask questions, and smile. Just as if you were encouraging your husband about a great run he had that morning, you may ask him about his time, smile at him, and show a give him your time and focus. I don’t think it’s any different with children.
Amanda @NotJustCute says
Good analogy. I get a lot of satisfaction out of running, but I’ll probably never qualify for the Boston Marathon. If someone asks how I feel and how my time compares to my goal, I feel pretty good. If someone says “Good job” I assume they don’t understand or care to understand what I just accomplished. If they try to label me as a “good” or “bad” runner based on elite standards, I feel pretty discouraged. But if someone simply shows interest, asking about my training, my goals, and my past races, I feel validated and encouraged. I totally relate to that analogy!
Suzita @ playfightrepeat.com says
I like the comment you included about taking an interest in what a child is thinking or doing as a central way of offering encouragement. At the most basic levels, we all want to be seen and this sentiment gets at that.
This post reminds me of many issues discussed in Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset: A New Psychology of Success. She did an experiment in which, after working on some puzzles, one group of children was told “you must be smart at this” and another group was told “you must have worked hard at this.” Turns out one comment can make a difference in kids’ subsequent behaviors. The group told they worked hard challenged themselves with harder puzzles in the future, whereas “the smart group” stuck with the easy puzzles more often than not. This research finding emphasizes how important your subject of “how to praise kids” is. Thanks for writing this post!
Amanda @NotJustCute says
Isn’t that interesting, Suzita? I’ve heard of the same/similar study in the book Nurture Shock and in the article, The Inverse Power of Praise. Surprising, but it makes sense. If it’s about “being smart” you’re being encouraged to maintain that label. If it’s about working hard, you’re encouraged to maintain that action. Again, do we want to reinforce success, regardless of the means, (be that cheating, avoiding challenges, etc.) or do we want to reinforce persistence and hard work? Our encouragement should focus on what we actually intend to reinforce.
Alex | Perfecting Dad says
I have to say that this is a great article. There are many who misunderstand the powers and dangers of praise, and praise really is both powerful and dangerous. Your comments are equally well-reasoned.
The most important piece in my mind is that the “praise” should provide feedback above all else, assuming the goal is to improve something. In that sense, there is a need for a judgement component, but if you add in geniune interest and underlying motive of trying to instill the ability for the child to become self-aware about their own performance, then you are creating a child who doesn’t need as much external praise in the future. They themselves will begin to understand how much effort they invested, how “good” their results were, and be comfortable with missing the mark and using the experience to improve. The dangers of misused praise are, as you’ve noted, having it become noise, reinforcing in the child that their talents cannot be improved, causing the child to lose interest in activites in favour of chasing compliments, and unintentionally reinforcing “bad” behaviours.
Praise is hugely important and useful in developing children, contrary to what some might call trying to control the child or do things TO the child. Used well it is more like freeing the child or opening the child’s mind.
Bravo. It’s very rare, in my experience, even for educators to understand this. Readers should re-read and contemplate your article.
Amanda @NotJustCute says
Alex- Thank you so much. I agree, the focus should be on feedback, that’s what is actually useful to the child. And you make a good point about the the fact that judgment is very much a component of encouragement and healthy praise. We do need to teach children to honestly evaluate themselves. That usually brings about more change than our opinions do.
Thanks again for reading, and for your kind words.
Thank you for this reminder! I do my best to ask children to tell me about their work…it’s so valuable for them to reflect on that process. I have been saying “awesome” or “good” job lately and need to be more conscious of those comments. I often struggle when kids come to show me their clothes…I know the little girl in the animal print tutu is looking to hear “it’s so pretty.” I want to be more intentional about asking questions and listening instead of offering the “easy” response.
Amanda @NotJustCute says
It really is a challenge, especially when your brain is going 100 mph with all those little ones! I don’t think anyone should feel guilty for saying, “Good Job”. When it comes out of my mouth, I think of it as a buzzer reminding me to add on to it with something more specific and descriptive.
And you’re right, it’s hard when you know someone is just waiting for the compliment on their cute little outfit. I’d probably say something like, “You look excited about your tutu. Do you want to tell me about it?” While we don’t want to overemphasize outward appearance, we also don’t want to ignore something that they’re genuinely interested in or excited about. Just try to keep the focus on them and their opinions, not yours. Thanks so much for reading!
Thank you so much for this article. A couple of days ago someone I respect said “I hate hearing parents praise their kids for everything.” I had not thought about the subject of too much praise and been thinking about it since then. I am one of those parents who say good job a lot. I associated it with the idea of giving them attention when they are doing good so they don’t feel the need to get attention by acting out. I can definitely understand now what this person meant. I can see exactly what you are saying. I can give the attention without making them need praise to feel good. I will be implementing this into my parenting techniques. Thank you so much for this timely message.
Kelly @ Ahimsa Mama says
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I am also a parent who’s knee jerk reaction is to say “good job” or “awesome”. . . ALL the time. I have taken the advice – I think in one of your previous articles- mentioned above to think of that as a buzz word for more specific praise and it has really helped. Baby steps. I love the suggestion to take an interest. I think that will be the next level for me in improving how I praise them. It seems that it lends itself well to having it be more about the child than about my own opinions.
Thank you for your post! Great reminder and new insights for myself.
It took me a while to move from automated praise with a goal to change the child’s the behavior (especially when teaching or managing a group of preschoolers) to genuine feedback, and I think part of the key to me figuring it out was respect. If I respected the child as an individual then it was much easier to convey when I was grateful, interested or proud of them…
Wish I’d read this about 12 years ago I would have figured it out a lot sooner!
Having worked in infant/toddler care for many years, I’m accustomed to not using praise when speaking with children. So now with my daughters excluding this phrase came naturally. What I had not accounted for was how often family and friends use praise with them. Yet, still I felt confident that our respect for their intrinsic motivation and own sense of pride would be a majority of their experiences. Last week, my 22 month-old daughter said very lovingly to her 7 month old sister, “Good job, sister.” for drinking out of a cup. Though it came from a loving place, I can’t help but feel disappointed that she is not living the experience that I am trying to give her. Not sure how to parent through this experience.
Amanda @NotJustCute says
I think since your daughter’s comment was said with the very best of intentions, your best approach might be through modeling. I don’t think “Good Job” is detrimental in and of itself, children just benefit from more specific feedback. So if your daughter says “Good Job” simply expand by saying, “Yes, you’re being so careful with that cup” etc. You may be able to use the same approach with other adults as well. Their intentions are to build up your children, and it’s hard to fault them for that. Simply add on more specific feedback when you can and do your part to model effective encouragement.