Does Too Much Praise Really Hurt Kids?

By: Christie Monson

Prepare yourself for an article that you may find both intriguing and annoying.  Does too much praise hurt kids? Alfie Kohn, on the website, WaldorfHomeSchoolers.com, makes a case for thinking twice about how and when you praise your child.

Does Too Much Praise Hurt Kids?

Hang out at a playground, visit a school, or show up at a child’s birthday party, and there’s one phrase you can count on hearing repeatedly: “Good job!”  Even tiny infants are praised for smacking their hands together (“Good clapping!”). Many of us blurt out these judgments of our children to the point that it has become almost a verbal tic….

Lest there be any misunderstanding, the point here is not to call into question the importance of supporting and encouraging children, the need to love them and hug them and help them feel good about themselves.  Praise, however, is a different story entirely.  Read the entire article here.

Kohn proposes that praise can cause five basic problems.  She backs up her findings with many studies by reputable sources.  Praise can actually:

  1. Manipulate children
  2. “Praise Junkies”
  3. Steal the child’s pleasure
  4. Make the child could lose interest
  5. Reduce achievement

Here’s the part that many of us could find annoying:  She argues,

Suppose you offer a verbal reward to reinforce the behavior of a two-year-old who eats without spilling, or a five-year-old who cleans up her art supplies.  Who benefits from this?  Is it possible that telling kids they’ve done a good job may have less to do with their emotional needs than with our convenience?

…The reason praise can work in the short run is that young children are hungry for our approval.  But we have a responsibility not to exploit that dependence for our own convenience.

Hmm.  Don’t many of us believe that kids need guidance about basic skills to live among civilized human beings?  Aren’t we helping them out by teaching them how to do this?  Who has time for long philosophical discussions when the entire kitchen is coated with something pink and sticky that you probably don’t want the dog tracking into the rest of the house and we’ve got to get dinner put together before the out of town guests arrive?  We’ve got to get rolling here.  Good job cleaning up, kids!  (And good job manipulating the quick cleanup with praise, mom!)

On the other hand, (barring sticky pink emergencies) here’s the intriguing part:  Kohn has done her homework.  Studies she mentions reveal that:

  • Students who were praised lavishly by their teachers were more tentative in their responses, more apt to answer in a questioning tone of voice (“Um, seven?”).  They tended to back off from an idea they had proposed as soon as an adult disagreed with them.  And they were less likely to persist with difficult tasks or share their ideas with other students.
  •  …once attention is withdrawn, many kids won’t touch the activity again.
  • …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.”

As an alternative, Kohn asserts that kids need unconditional support.  This is different from saying, “good job!” which has strings attached.  So how do we provide unconditional support while still being constructive?

  • Say what you saw.  A simple, evaluation-free statement (“You put your shoes on by yourself” or even just “You did it”) tells your child that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did.
  • If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: “Look at Abigail’s face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack.”
  • Even better than descriptions are questions. Why tell him what part of his drawing impressed you when you can ask him what he likes best about it? Asking “What was the hardest part to draw?” or “How did you figure out how to make the feet the right size?” is likely to nourish his interest in drawing.

What is your reaction to Kohn’s article about whether or not too much praise hurts our kids?  Have you seen examples in your own interactions with kids that illustrate or contradict her points?  Should you combine unconditional support with praise?   Tell us what you think in the comment section below.

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