We naturally want to encourage children to learn and to feel good about themselves. With that goal in mind, it is a common assumption that children benefit from being praised. But is this assumption correct?
Many people praise children with words such as, “Good job,” “Good girl,” “You’re really smart,” “That’s a pretty drawing,” and “You’re a great swimmer!” Unfortunately, however, this kind of praise may not be the best way to help children learn or to boost their self-esteem.
There are different kinds of praise, and psychologists have studied the effects of these on children’s motivation, performance, and self-esteem. These researchers have found that positive value judgments of a child’s abilities or accomplishments (such as the examples given above) are often less effective than other kinds of praise or encouragement. In fact, this kind of praise can have some unwanted consequences.
The hidden pitfalls of praise
Studies have shown that praise with value judgments does not necessarily motivate children to learn. In fact, it can have the opposite effect by undermining children’s intrinsic motivation. Children are born with the desire and the ability to learn, and they naturally take pride in their progress. They don’t care whether their accomplishments are “good” or not until we start praising or rewarding them. When we praise or reward children for their accomplishments, they may come to depend on external approval and lose touch with their inherent desire to learn and their natural pride in their abilities.
Another problem is that praise with value judgments can have the opposite effect of what we want and can lead to anxiety, insecurity, and low self-esteem. This fact may seem surprising at first, but it’s actually quite logical. If we tell a child, “You’re really smart,” when she correctly solves a math problem, she may feel stupid the next time she makes a mistake. In fact, she may become anxious or insecure while doing math for fear of not meeting our expectations about her intelligence.
So what can we do? What is our role? How can we help children learn and feel good about themselves without using this kind of praise? It may seem strange or even uncaring to refrain from praising children in these ways. Luckily, there are many helpful ways to encourage children and strengthen their self-esteem without the use of value judgments.
How to encourage children without using value judgments
- 1. Mirror children’s excitement and pride about their accomplishments. Celebrate with them, but avoid value judgments.
- “You did it!”
- “Yay!” “Wow!”
- “I bet you’re really proud of yourself!”
- “It looks like you had a lot of fun doing that!”
- “You worked really hard on that.”
- 2. Offer feedback by comparing their performance to their own past performance (but not to other people or to some arbitrary standard of perfection).
- “That’s the farthest you’ve ever swum.”
- “That’s the tallest tower you’ve ever built.”
- “You didn’t need my help that time.”
- “Wow! You didn’t make any mistakes that time.”
- “That’s the first time you finished all your homework before dinner.”
- 3. Share your feelings (be honest and authentic).
- “Your painting reminds me of a summer day.”
- “I would love to live in that Lego house because it has lots of windows.”
- “Now that you have put your toys away, I can walk without stumbling.”
- “I had so much fun cooking dinner with you.”
- “I love watching you dance.”
- Note: Avoid sharing positive feelings in an attempt to control other children’s behavior. For example, when a teacher says, “I like the way Johnny is sitting still,” a possible outcome is that the other children will resent Johnny and feel that the teacher likes him better.
- 4. Show interest by asking questions.
- “Would you like to tell me about your painting?”
- “How did you solve that math problem?”
- “Did it turn out the way you wanted? Did you reach your goal?”
- “What’s your favorite swimming stroke?”
- “Did you have fun doing that? What was the hardest part?”
- Note: Avoid asking questions implying that the child could have done somethig better, such as, “Why didn’t you use your fastest swimming stroke?”
- 5. Provide nonverbal appreciation and encouragement.
- Display their art work.
- Watch and listen when they sing, play an instrument, dance, build, or create.
- Applaud after a performance, if appropriate, to express your authentic enjoyment (but don’t overdo it).
- Take pictures and make audio or video recordings of them (if they agree).
- Let them see you struggling to learn something new and making mistakes.
We posted a link to this article on the Aware Parenting Institute Facebook page on September 28, 2016. A lively discussion occurred. Here are some of the comments and questions we received, with Aletha Solter’s replies.
The last tip (provide nonverbal appreciation and encouragement) is not only a feasible behavior, but also, and most importantly, a spontaneous one. All the other suggestions sound a bit artificial:. What about the rest of the world that relies only on rewards, at every second of our lives? What about schools, which are not only based on rewards but, even worse, on competition? Is our influence sufficient? And is it really positive in our society? In the jungle where our children live, I think that telling them, “You are really good, my love,” is not that bad for their self-esteem.
- Aletha Solter’s reply:
Thanks for your comments. I agree that nonverbal appreciation and encouragement is more spontaneous. Perhaps this way of talking to children sounds a bit artificial because we are so conditioned to making value judgments. It doesn’t come naturally at first, but with practice, it can feel more natural and spontaneous. Yes, unfortunately, most schools emphasize rewards and competition. But I feel confident that the way we treat children at home can play a major role in counteracting the cultural influences. As for telling children that they are good, I think it’s important to distinguish between telling children that they are fundamentally (and unconditionally) good, versus using the word “good” to praise a specific attribute or accomplishment. I don’t see any harm in telling children that they are fundamentally good, especially if they have been punished, abused, or told that they are bad. But this is very different from saying “Good job!” for a specific behavior.
I agree with this article wholeheartedly and was happy to see such helpful examples. I’d love to know how to move more towards this style of communication when you have older children who have been praised so much that you can see some of the unwanted effects. I’m aware that I can’t control others’ behavior, but I’m at a standstill with how to counter it with my children. After you do the things suggested here, how do you answer children when they ask straight out if a drawing or story is “good?”
- Aletha Solter’s reply:
It can be difficult to counteract the cultural influence on children, especially when they seem to want praise with value judgments. It’s certainly tempting to say, “Yes, it’s very good,” in an effort to reassure them. But is that what they really need from us? In my experience, children sometimes ask if an accomplishment is “good” when they are not totally happy with it. Keeping this in mind, here are some suggestions for ways to respond. For a drawing: “Wow, you spent a lot of time on that drawing. Your colorful rainbow makes me feel cheerful. Did it turn out the way you wanted? Would you like me to put it on the wall?” For a story: “Wow, that’s the longest story you’ve ever written. I was eager to see how it ended. Are you happy with it? Shall we send it to grandma?” If they keep asking, “But is it GOOD?” we can reply, “It sounds like you really want my approval. I like it, but how do YOU feel about it?” These are just suggestions. Obviously, every child and every situation is different.
About the author:
Aware Parenting is based on the work of Dr. Aletha Solter. She is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, consultant, and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute. Her books have been translated into many languages, and she is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline.For more information, please see Dr. Aletha Solter’s books, The Aware Baby, Helping Young Children Flourish, Tears and Tantrums, Raising Drug-Free Kids, and Attachment Play.
Do you want parenting support?
Hi! I'm Chris Muller, MSc, BTA, and I'm a passionate psychologist, counsellor in Transactional Analysis and Aware Parenting Instructor level 2 in Amsterdam. I offer Aware Parenting Workshops and 1-on-1 coaching and guidance (In my practice and through video-calls). It's my passion to support you to have joy, understanding and connection with your child and with yourself! Xx
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For further reading: books and articles about praise
- Henderlong, J. & Lepper, M.R. (2002). The effects of praise on children’s intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin. 128 (5): 774-795 Link to article abstract.
- Hitz, R. and Driscoll, A. (1988) Praise or encouragement? New insights into praise: Implications for early childhood educators. Young Children, 1988, 43(5), 6-13.
- Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Manner Books.
- Kohn, A. (2001). Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” Young Children. Link to article.
- Mueller, C.M. and Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 75(1), 33-52. Link to article abstract.
Copyright © 2016 by Aletha Solter. Published with permission of Aletha Solter and the Aware Parenting Institute. This article may be printed for personal use and for free distribution to parents. Please ask permission for all other electronic and mechanical forms of reproduction (including copying to other web sites, and including translations). Warning/Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional advice or treatment. Photo by Frank McKenna.