Twenty-five years ago, as a parent educator, I began reading about the dangers of praise. I was completely shocked by what I was learning. Praise, the feel-good strategy of choice, not good for our kids? How could that be? So I spent years talking with professionals, reading about the effects of praise, observing how my own children responded to encouragement (instead of praise) and was soon convinced to close the door on praise and focus on building an encouraging household.
Even today, with all the research available to parents, I still hear—”How can that be? How can saying, ‘Good job’ or ‘I’m proud of you’ be bad? It makes my child happy, it makes me feel good and it’s easy!”
I understand. It can be a difficult habit to break—and the fact that it feels good only increases our resistance to giving it up.
The Problems with Praise
Praise focuses on:
- perfection rather than progress and improvement
- a right or wrong outcome rather than a meaningful experience
- good or bad decisions rather than the decision-making process
- pride or disappointment rather than acceptance and support
Praise trains children to depend on constant feedback regarding what a “great job” they are doing. This dependency shatters rather than builds a child’s self-esteem.
Praise trains children to inquire, “Do you like it?” “Did I do a good job?” “Are you proud of me?” “Did I do it right?” Children begin to believe that what others think is more important than what they think about their choices, actions, accomplishments and mistakes. Praise jeopardizes the child’s ability to develop their own internal compass to guide the decision-making process.
Praise fractures the relationship between parent and child. Without even realizing it, parents may be using praise as a tool to direct and manipulate the child’s behavior. The message is clear—I approve of you when you … and I do not approve of you when you. … Living with this kind of constant judgment can damage not only the child’s confidence but also the relationship.
So If Not Praise, What?
The remedy to the problem of praise is encouragement. Encouragement can be given at any time, to anyone, in any situation. It is an observation, an acknowledgment, a statement that focuses on effort, improvement or choice, and it helps to promote self-esteem and a sense of well-being, confidence, insight and resilience.
Encouragement is often confused with praise. Here is a story to illustrate the difference:
A child comes home from school with an A on her English test.
Parent says, “Good job, you are so smart, let’s put it on the fridge!”
A few weeks later the same child comes home with a D on her science test.
How would the parent respond to this child? “We have a problem. We have to fix this. Maybe we should hire a tutor. What were you thinking? I know you can do better.”
In this light, it’s easy to see the limitations of praise. How do you praise? You don’t. As parents, we inadvertently send the message that we are disappointed and bring the learning process to a halt.
In an encouraging household, the same scenario might look something like this:
Parent observes and asks questions. “You got an A on your test. Tell me about that. Was it easy? Did you do anything differently? What do you know now that you did not before? How is your relationship with the teacher? What does he do that works well for you? What have you done to overcome any challenges you met? Is this subject interesting to you?”
Or something like, “Wow, you got a D. Tell me about that. What do you think happened? Did you study? Is this the grade you deserved? What would you do differently? Do you know anything new? What do you know about the teacher’s style or your learning style?”
If you are preoccupied by feeling proud or disappointed, you miss the opportunity to be curious and help the child learn more about himself, his learning style, the situation and what he might do differently the next time. After all, it’s more important that the child know himself than it is for you to pass judgment on his experience.
Use encouragement on a regular basis and teach your children to:
- Create an internal framework for themselves in which to self-assess their lives, their choices, attitudes, actions and behaviors, as well as their preferences and their progress.
- Figure out what is important to them, which will make it possible for them to create a satisfying and meaningful adult life.
- Spend less time asking the outside world to measure their worth as people.
More than any other tool, concept or skill I use, encouragement is my strategy of choice. I consider encouragement a way of being. I believe that if parents develop and master the art of encouragement, they will experience dramatic and lasting changes in both their children’s behavior and the quality of the relationship between parent and child.
Can you think of a situation when your child would have experienced the benefit of encouragement instead of praise?