Research debunking the myth of praise as useful has been published since the 1970’s.
However, every time that I talk to parents about why they shouldn’t praise their kids, people look at me like I’m a leper! After all, for the past 30-40 years the mantra from many ‘experts’ has been that we should catch our kids doing something right and praise them for it.
Let’s be real – we can do much worse to our kids than praise them… but there are some really concerning outcomes our children experience when we praise.
Here are a handful of problems with praise – and some suggestions for what we might consider instead:
Praise undermines empathy
Researchers have found that children who are praised excessively may be more likely to be bullies. Why? The praise appears to do two things. First, it over-inflates their sense of self, and they simply feel like they’re better than all the other kids – and that they can push them around. Second, some kids get caught up in defending the fact that they’re ‘special’ or ‘smart’ or ‘super’, and in so doing, may bully others to prove just how great they are.
Praise can undermine intrinsic motivation
Praise can be diminish performance, creativity, and problem solving
Several studies have demonstrated that praise leads to poorer performance. It seems that a sense that an evaluation may occur leads to children doing more poorly on a task after praise than they would if no praise were offered. That is, they feel pressure to live up to previous expectations, and often underperform.
As one example, social psychologist Roy Baumeister (1990) conducted a study involving 42 male college students. These participants were praised for their performance while playing video games (a skilled task). Participants spent thirty minutes on practice trials to become familiar with the video game, and recorded their scores during the practice phase.
They were then told they would participate in 15 performance trials and were given a goal to work towards. This goal was approximately equivalent to the third highest score achieved in practice. When the goal was achieved the experimenter stated, “good job” or “very good”. The praise led to increased effort which would be appropriately considered as a positive outcome.
The praise, however, also led to significantly reduced subsequent performance on each trial immediately following the praise (Baumeister et al., 1990). It was argued that participants became more self-conscious as a result of praise, which undermined their performance at a skilled task despite increasing effort.
This effect of praise on performance occurred even when praise was for something entirely task irrelevant, such as the appearance of the participant. Praise has also been show to reduce creativity, problem solving ability, and interest in taking on challenging tasks. In fact, to defend their label as ‘smart’ or ‘talented’, our children often shy away from challenges and mastery, and instead choose tasks that are easy in order to look competent.
Praise can undermine self-belief Meyer and colleagues (1979, 1992) found that students who were praised for their work in the classroom attributed the praise to a belief that the teacher considered that they had low ability and was therefore praising them to boost their belief in themselves.
This was replicated when students read stories of people who received either praise or criticism. It seems that students inferred that if a teacher were praising another student, the student must have low ability. If the student were being criticised, the inference was that the student possessed HIGH ability.
Praise can undermine relationships
If children don’t believe the praise, or perceive it as insincere, or feel that it is manipulative or evaluative, then praise can have a negative impact on the way a child sees his relationship with you.
So what am I supposed to do?
But hang on – I always thought we were supposed to praise our kids to make them feel good about themselves! Now you’re telling me to not praise them? How am I supposed to help them feel good about themselves now?
It’s terribly frustrating. Aside from a handful of questioning voices, the dominant thought on praise has been (and remains) that we make things better for our kids by praising them. I’m consistently asked, “What do I say when they do something good.”
Let me make this point really, really, clear. Our kids need our support and encouragement. They need positive communication from us. They just don’t need it in the form of praise. So how are we supposed to do that? Try the following ideas:
1. Express gratitude
When you see that your child has done something you value, say ‘thanks’.
“Hey thanks for cleaning up your room. I appreciate it.”
“I’m really grateful you ate all your dinner tonight. It will help you grow even bigger and stronger.”
“When you share your toys with your friends, it makes me feel grateful… and it makes your friends grateful to.”
2. Describe effort rather than evaluating it
When your child does something you think is great, break it down and talk about what you’ve noticed but do it without any evaluation.
“This kitchen looks so much cleaner than before. I can really tell how hard you must have worked.”
“When you were on the sports field/court I noticed how hard you seemed to be concentrating on those things you practiced during the week.”
“Wow. When you played that song on the piano, your fingers seemed right, the louds and softs were in the right places.”
“When your sister shouted at you, I heard you speak softly and kindly back. How do you think that made things better?”
3. Ask questions to encourage your child to do his/her own evaluating
After you have described what you have seen, or expressed appreciation, it can be useful to have your child form her own opinion of what she did.
“How did you feel about it?”
“What did you notice about how you felt?”
“What was the reaction of your friends when you made that decision?”
4. Be encouraging
Teach your children that effort brings rewards. When children are doing something difficult, rather than praising for it, speak with them about engaging in the process, about doing one bit at a time, and about useful strategies they can employ. Then, at the end of the process, be supportive again by describing the effort you’ve observed them use, and the outcome they’ve achieved.
“I know it’s hard.”
“In our family, we do hard things, and right now you’re doing it too.”
“How can I help? I’m watching you work at this and can see you making progress.”
“If you keep it up, I know you’ll be able to do this.”
“Wow, you worked hard at it. You did it in little bits. Now it’s finished. You did something hard and now it’s done!”
“How does it feel to know you can do it?”
Is praise bad for our children?
The short answer is ‘yes’. (Obviously a little bit won’t hurt, but it’s better to not get into the habit.) Research shows it can reduce people’s motivation, negatively affect their behaviour, and more. Ultimately, praise is cheap. It’s often a broad character assessment (you’re a good boy) that is given away easily, can be confusing, and is easily retracted ten seconds later if the child does something we disapprove of. It leads to lower motivation later if it isn’t kept regular, and can lead children to question themselves if they’re not getting it when they expect it.
To build up our kids, we don’t need to praise them. Instead, we can be much more effective in helping children feel encouraged, supported, and appreciated by expressing gratitude, being descriptive, helping them make their own judgements of how they’re actually doing (which is far more powerful than having judgements passed down from us), or offering simple encouragement and understanding.