Extensive research has been done to show the amazing results of praise. It can motivate both adults and children to perform exceedingly well, but to do it for the goal of obtaining the praise, not for the joy of achieving or the pleasure of the activity. I first learned of the term ‘praise junkie’ when I read Nurture Shock (2009; Twelve), a book that offers new research-based thinking about children.
The authors state that the use of praise is becoming the solution for modern-day parenting that caregivers offer to their children as a way of soothing the anxieties the children experience throughout their day. More and more parents seem to strive to “make things all better,” so that their children experience less stress. And over-praised children don’t grow up to be ‘unmotivated softies’ as some have claimed, but instead, researchers have found that they actually become more competitive and overly focused on tearing others down.
So if praising our children is discouraged, what are we supposed to do? The answer lies in our response to our child’s accomplishment. Instead of making sure that every child receives a trophy, the key is in how we respond to our child individually. Instead of saying “I’m proud of you,” the most effective parental response is “What did YOU think of the game,“ or “Tell me all about the picture you drew.” But there is more to this story; allow me to explain.
I’m often asked if praise is bad for children and my response has been that it has a time, a place and a season. I see certain types of praise being necessary in three specific situations: in teaching young, egocentric children learn new social skills (hygiene, chores, etc.), when working with some children with disorders (such as those on the Autism spectrum) and in situations for turning around unhealthy family relationships.
In most of these types of situations however, there is a season. Eventually, the awarding of smiley faces on behavior charts or rewards for accomplishing new tasks should stop. Eventually, many autistic children can move past the daily rewards for better cooperation at home and in the classroom as their development progresses. And if the work is done, unhealthy family relationships can be restored, leading to less praise and rewards.
When praise is not or no longer needed, encouragement (as you indicated) is needed instead. Praise is one person’s judgment of another. Even the words “Good Job” or “Attaboy” are someone’s evaluation of another person’s creation or performance. Encouragement is the technique of having that creating or performing person to say “Good Job” with their own voice. It coaches them to step back and assess what they did, and make internal decisions such as: “Am I happy with what I created?” “Will I do it again?” “Do I love doing this” “Does it fulfill me?” “What will I do with what I created?”
When my children were young, I made the switch to stop the praise and instead, use encouragement. I tried it, sort of as an experiment to see what would happen. When my children came up to me with a picture they had drawn or a castle they built and said to me, “Look Dad, look at my picture.” Instead of saying to them “Good Job,” I said “Wow, tell me all about it.” In that moment, they would describe what they had created and I would avoid providing my opinion. My job was to be there in that moment and listen.
In the beginning, using this new response to whatever they wanted to show me, they would sometimes ask me, “What do you think Dad?” My response would always be, “I like it, but what do YOU think about it.” To wean them off the praise society and my parents taught me, I would always pass it back to them. Because what they thought of their own creation was more important than mine. Eventually, my children stopped asking me and stopped hanging their pictures on the refrigerator and instead, started hanging them on their bedroom walls or putting them in albums for them to enjoy. They stopped placing them in public places in hopes of obtaining good words from others.
When report cards came home, instead of taking it and reading it, I would hand it back to them and say, “Read it to me.” They would then read off their grades and I would listen. Encouragement requires lots of eye contact, much facial expression and few words. After they had read their grades, I would ask them specific questions to bring out more about the report card, never once applying my opinion. I would ask questions like what grade were they most proud of and which grade might they change and why. If they expressed a desire to bring up one grade or another, I would coach them into coming up with ideas and in many cases, I would offer to help in some capacity, still never applying my opinion of them or their grades.
Today I’m watching my three children live their lives according to what they enjoy and according to their own opinions of their accomplishments. They are not performing or creating for other people, they are doing what they love to do for the love of doing the act, not doing it to please others. I urge all parents to use more encouragement and less praise, every day!