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:

  1. 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.
  2. Figure out what is important to them, which will make it possible for them to create a satisfying and meaningful adult life.
  3. 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?

About Vicki Hoefle

For more than two decades, parent educator, author, speaker and coach, Vicki Hoefle, has been helping families across the country. Her strategies work for every family, whether you are just starting the parenting journey, beginning to experience the first challenges of raising children in the 21st century, living with stress, or facing a crisis. Vicki inspires families and shows them how to spend their time and energy investing in the relationship, focus on what is important and experience the joy of living in a healthy, loving family.

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  • Brandy Wilson

    I believe both praise and encouragement can co-exist. Nothing is more heartbreaking than to hear an adult child tell the mother with high expectations, “I just wanted to hear you say I did a good job”.

    • Vicki Hoefle

      That is the essence of encouragement. If a parent meets the child’s enthusiasm and asks questions that help the child relive the experience, the child is not left hanging, wishing for the mother to give her nod of approval. The child knows his mother is his biggest champion, whether he does a good job or not.‏

  • Sherrie Smith

    A bad grade is a learning opportunity. We are too focused on the product and not enough on the process itself. Life is long – I find many people in their 20’s who are disappointed in themselves for not being in this specific “place” they had in mind when they completely ignore the fact that they’re doing good work, growing, learning, and have a strong moral compass.

  • KP62

    I advocate for both praise and encouragement in the classroom and/or home, and believe there’s a place for both in teaching & learning. Neither is productive when used over-abundantly. I attended a training in our local school district where the trainer instructed teachers to “totally ignore children’s responses to questions posed during circle time” — a tactic that if practiced, she explained, would create independence in learners. She was a nut-case in many ways, but that particular idea was one that topped the scale and emphasized her irreverence for children. Children need acknowledgement in the forms of both praise and encouragement.

    • Vicki Hoefle

      I consider acknowledgement/making and observation to be encouraging. Thanks for your input.

  • Dustin Silva

    Vicki, I completely agree with a lot of your points, however, I don’t see it as ‘encouragement vs praise’, I see it as being ‘involved vs responding’…. the problem is when parents take a passive role in their child’s development by RESPONDING to him or her and what was done wrong or right instead of taking an active role by being INVOLVED with each step along the way.

    Parenting is all about communication and if we don’t genuinely listen to our children and address their concerns, good bad or indifferent, were nothing more than dictators telling them what they did right or wrong..

    Ask yourself this, how can we help our child if we don’t understand what he or she is going/gone through? Furthermore, how can we understand our children if we don’t ask questions and listen without judgement?

    • Vicki Hoefle

      I agree with you and I guess we can say I use the terms praise and encouragement and you use involved and responding. Great points.

      • Dustin Silva

        Same to you Vicki, thanks for starting the article!

  • Brett Hetherington

    Very well-argued and convincing, overall. I suppose that is praise but I mean it as encouragement!

  • loverpoint

    The difference between Praise and Encouragement is : #1 Parents should encourage their child to challenge themselves , #2 Praise comes when the child attempts a new challenge or succeeds in the task they challenged themselves to do .

    What Parents need to do is be more hands off and allow the child to learn how to take direction and make decisions for themselves , yet letting the child know very clearly that if they need help in any way that the parents will be there for their kid . This should start from infancy .

    #1 – Do not force religion on your child , let your child determine if they want to go to church and feel the need to have religion .
    #2 – Teach them the reasons why physical activity ( exercise ) is important and allow them to find their own form of activity .
    #3 – Introduce your child to a diversity of cultures , foods , music , art .
    #4 – I grew up in the suburbs of Northern California , but if I had a vote as to where to live it would have been to live in ” The City ” San Francisco so that I could go to the Park , Museums , Zoos , I loved all that culture as a kid and loved staying with my grandparents who lived in San Francisco . Of course back then we didn’t have computers that gave us all that instant knowledge ,

  • Steve

    I think this is a crock and proves that you don’t know much about child development. The problem is one of balance. Kids need praise just as much as they need encouragement. True, if we are praising more than we are encouraging (or if praise is used as a tool of manipulation – which is the way you displayed it with your example) than we are out of balance and that’s problematic, but the reverse is also true. There are positive things about praise and I’m sorry that you are neglecting those. I’m not sure why you seem to be focusing only on the negative aspects of praise. I show praise and curiosity/encouragement simultaneously with my children, I don’t think it’s that difficult and it certainly doesn’t have to be an either/or prospect.

  • JK Albright

    I understand where the author is going about praise. I see a lot of children with an inflated sense of ability because they’re bombarded with (usually gratuitous) praise and rewards. However, I agree with previous comments that recommend a balance between praise and encouragement. Either of these actions is more than a ‘speech act'; they require modeling and engagement with children. There needs to be as much fair criticism or neutral reactions as there is praise.

    As an ESL teacher of children and adults, I provide both praise and encouragement (as defined in the article), but I also have very high expectations for student performance and behavior. My classroom management style combines positive, consistent role modeling and enforcement of equitable classroom rules. I think parents and educators also have to know the children as individuals, what makes each of them tick, to figure out how to motivate them.

  • TruthBeliever

    Lots of excessive semantics here. Let’s simplify the issue: Excessive “praise” damages a child. Call it poor (or inflated?) self esteem or whatever but whatever term is used it’s still a bad thing. Call it “producing an inflated ego” but kids that receive excessive praise become obnoxious and rebellious. I’ve seen it too many times. A society built from kids who were raised this way will be problematic at best.