"Aren’t you clever?"
And what’s wrong with that? Surely our kids benefit from having their accomplishments and good behavior praised?
Apparently not. According to a growing number of experts, our well-meant words may not have the positive effects we intend.
First let’s clarify – we’re talking about evaluative praise: statements that pass judgement, such as “Good job!” or “You’re so smart!” Here are a few reasons why many parenting educators and psychologists suggest avoiding evaluative praise:
Evaluative praise often focuses on end results, rather than the effort or skill involved. This type of praise can be motivational but as human behavior and education expert, Alfie Kohn, explains in "Unconditional Parenting" there's a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation:
"Intrinsic motivation basically means you like what you’re doing for its own sake, whereas extrinsic motivation means you do something as a means to an end – in order to get a reward or avoid a punishment."
Kohn argues that extrinsic motivation erodes intrinsic: kids’ interest and enjoyment in the activity diminishes as they become seduced by the reward or praise.
Evaluative praise often doesn’t mean much, especially if used frequently and with little reason. Think about the difference in the following:
“Thank you for being patient while I did the shopping.”
“Good girl, let’s go.”
What do we want to achieve when we offer praise? Are there more effective ways to convey pride, to motivate, or give thanks?
So, let’s assume "good" behavior is our aim. Psychologist, author, and founder of Aha Parenting, Dr. Laura Markham, warns in "Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids" that "praise works only while you’re there to dispense it. For instance, children who are praised for sharing begin to share less unless adults are watching."
Research by psychologist Carol Dweck concluded that praising intelligence (i.e. “You’re good at math”) promotes a "fixed mindset": children believe their intellect and talent are fixed, so are less likely to persevere with challenging tasks. By contrast, children with a "growth mindset" trust that applying effort will help them to overcome difficulties.
However, Kohn advises against praise of any kind, cautioning that all praise teaches children that “attention, acknowledgment, and approval must be earned.”
So what’s the alternative?
Descriptive praise involves observing and commenting on kids’ actions and strategies. We can describe what we see, and how it impacts others, without imposing any judgement. Arguably it isn’t actually praise at all.
Michelle McHale, Director of Attachment Parenting UK, prefers the term "observational encouragement," while Dr. Markham talks about "unconditional positive regard," which she describes as: "Noticing your child and affirming him, his activities, his self, and your love for him – rather than evaluating him with conditional praise."
As Melissa Hood, Director of London-based The Parent Practice, writes in "Real Parenting": "We want our children to take responsibility for their own behavior and evaluate what they do for themselves, rather than rely on what other people think."
This all resonates with me. Rather than teaching our kids to seek external approval isn’t it better to support them as they learn, grow, and gain confidence in their abilities?
Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish, in "How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk," speak of the adult "describing with appreciation" what they see, enabling the child to then praise themselves. The role of facilitator appeals to me; helping our children to recognize and take pride in their own achievements.
I thought about when and how we would usually offer praise, and found alternatives. I made a list and stuck it on our refrigerator:
Just be there : Give attention, not praise
Describe :“You did it! You drew a picture with green and blue crayon.”
Explain the impact : “You gave Charlie his toy; that made him happy.” Or, “Your friends really enjoyed playing here today because you shared your toys.”
Discuss : “You filled another page in your sticker book – how did you decide where to put them all?” Or, “You went to the bathroom on your own; did that make you feel proud?”
As a side note, our daughter is a toddler. Clearly these phrases would need to be adjusted for an older child.
As we began this shift in approach, I felt some initial resistance. I wanted my daughter to feel appreciated and the impulse to simply say, “That’s great!’ remained strong. But I remembered McHale’s words from the APUK Positive Discipline Course:
"Encouragement can sometimes be wordless. Children will sense our pleasure or appreciation and more than anything they will appreciate our attention and interest without having their actions and behavior specifically recognized."
As I sat with my daughter, I wondered: does it make us feel good too, to praise our children? Parents of young kids spend a lot of time saying ‘no’ and redirecting; it’s a relief to say something purely positive.
Does praising our kids also validate our parenting somehow? I certainly have days when I question the job I’m doing. Could saying, “Good sharing!” when it’s all going well be a bit of a self-administered pat on the back?
A few days into our new approach, I noticed some changes:
Evaluative praise is a quick, easy response, especially while juggling laundry and dinner prep. Descriptive praise requires more thought and effort, but my daughter is clearly boosted by my interest which, in turn, seems to extend her interest in the task at hand.
Had I not asked what the scribbles were in my daughter’s latest artwork I wouldn’t have known that it was Grandma in a rocket ship, with a sandwich in case she got hungry. I enjoy conversations like that.
Yesterday my daughter said, “Watch me be kind,” as she gave her baby brother a toy. I would far rather hear that than, “Watch me be a good girl.” I replied with a simple observational comment, and she toddled off looking very pleased with herself.
Obviously we’re in early stages here and it’ll be interesting, in later years, to see how this approach works as our kids face higher stakes challenges. But I can see already that our daughter appreciates this kind of encouragement.
I’m pleased that we’ve switched off autopilot and are attempting to interact with our kids in a more mindful way. I plan to keep working at this, to keep noticing and discussing, and above all to heap attention on our children, not praise.