Should we praise children?

praising children

carrot or stick or neither

No! Why would you want to? Perhaps it’s a need you have, not a need your child has? Do you have any sound rational basis for praise, do you have any evidence for its effectiveness? Do children actually believe our praise? Does it sound genuine or a manipulative tool to “encourage” them? Don’t you think praise wears thin after a while and they cease to hear it? Can’t children just do something because they enjoy it? Can’t they do something they value, learning to initiate and innovate and value their own instincts? And what’s the other side of the coin to praise?: criticism. What’s the other side of the coin to reward?: punishment. What happens when suddenly one day there is no praise or reward? What happens when a less wholesome person offers a child a reward for doing something they shouldn’t do?

I’ve already written about the problems of praise and a related issue of reward in my post Learning to cope with Bullying and Cyber Bullying, but my curiosity was raised when I came a cross this recent research suggesting “…Circuits in the brain involved in pursuing and relishing rewarding experiences are more strongly activated in people with bipolar disorder – guiding them towards riskier gambles and away from safer ones.” (see here)

This research just published by Manchester University isn’t saying that praising or rewarding children will make them bipolar, but confusing doing something for a good reason is very different to doing something for a reward as an end in itself. Where should we find the satisfaction; in the means or the end?

Reward has often been cited in educational literature as an effective tool enabling the brain to learn more efficiently, even when we are rewarding ourselves! And yes, reward is different to praise but children soon learn to manipulate rewards. So reward may well have a place but I suggest if it does, it’s in training children, i.e. teaching them a skill (as one would train a dog to do a trick or for obedience ) as opposed to educating them which comes from within – remembering the origin of the words education and educe; to bring out or develop what is latent or potential.

Nor do we want to inhibit children’s ability to take risks – measured risks – and not the impulsive risks typical of bipolar pathology, it seems children will make better decisions and take sensible risks if they learn to trust themselves which occurs when they do things of their own accord, learning from mistakes, rather than learning to satisfy the wishes of  parents, teachers, bosses, peers etc.

The best approach is to praise the child’s effort or work rather than the person. Here’s Naomi Aldort’s view available on her website,

At first, I thought that commenting, acknowledging, and praising children for their achievements express love and build self-esteem. In time, I realized that these well-intended interventions do just the opposite: they foster dependency on external validation and undermine the children’s trust in themselves. Children who are subjected to endless commentary, acknowledgment, and praise eventually learn to do things not for their own sake, but to please others. Gratifying others soon becomes their primary motivation, replacing impulses stemming from the authentic self and leading to its loss.

Contrary to common belief, children feel more loved and self-assured when we do not intervene in their activities. Not only do they remain secure in our love and support when we refrain from intervening, but they need us to protect them from these intrusions, which can interfere with their progress, self-reliance, and emotional well-being.

When we intervene with praise, wants, advice, and rewards, doubts sneak in and shake loose our children’s trust in themselves and in us. Sensitive and smart, they perceive that we have an agenda – that we are manipulating them toward some preferred or “improved” end result. This awareness gets them thinking: “Perhaps what I am trying to achieve is wrong – I can’t trust myself to know or choose,” or “Mom and Dad have an agenda that I must fulfill if I am to have their approval and their love.”

Gradually, a shift occurs. Children who were once doing for the sake of personal pleasure or understanding begin doing for the sake of pleasing. No longer do they trust in their actions, and no longer do they trust us, for we are not really on their side. Along with the shift to pleasing us comes the fear of not pleasing us. Emotional and intellectual dependency, low self-esteem, and lack of self-confidence invariably follow.

Even when we intervene with casual commentary on our children’s imaginative play, doubts sneak in. What children are experiencing inwardly at these times is so often remote from our “educated” guesses that bewilderment soon turns to self-denial and self-doubt. Moreover, children perceive the phony and patronizing remarks for what they are, and may conclude that it is OK to be insincere and pretentious.

From Praising to Observing
It is difficult to stop dishing out praise. For one thing, we are hooked on our conditioning as well as on the “hard sell” of the holy cow called Praise. For another, we are easily misled: the praised-for-every-achievement child seems like a happy, successful, highly self-esteemed child. In reality, such a child has shifted to the pleasing mode, driven to success not by personal curiosity or delight, but by the desire to oblige us and live up to our expectations. As educator John Holt has said of children, “They are afraid, above all else, of failing, of disappointing or displeasing the many anxious adults around them, whose limitless hopes and expectations for them hang over their heads like a cloud.”2 In short, the esteem we notice is not self-esteem, for the self has been lost in the early years of this type of conditioning. The happiness we see is not pleasure, but rather relief that another pleasing act has been accomplished, securing parental approval (emotional survival) and concealing a feeling of deep loss.

Credits: Image; wikicommons: Nevit Dilman

This entry was posted in Family, Parenting, Treatment of Children and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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