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Myth: You Should Praise Your Child Every Day

Fact: Studies show that praise not only fails to boost achievement but may actually lower it. When praised for succeeding at something that's not very difficult, the recipients may take this to mean that they are not very smart. Perceived pressure to live up to the compliment can lead to self-consciousness, and interfere with performance.

Praise encourages dependency on the evaluations of others. It undermines the intrinsic motivation that leads people to do their best; if unable to meet the other's expectations, they may ultimately give up trying. The most noticeable aspect of a positive judgment is not that it is positive but that it is a judgment. It can produce resistance because it usually implies a difference in status and may be heard as condescending.

Praise, being a verbal reward, is no better than a gold star. Now, you will in all likelihood forever look differently at those bumper stickers asking us to "Praise Our Children - Every Day," and at all of those books on parenting that offer no hint that positive comments could be anything but constructive. Note the difference between straightforward information on how well someone has done a task, or encouragement that leaves the recipient with a sense of self-determination, and verbal rewards that feel controlling, make you dependent on someone else's approval, and in general prove to be no less destructive than other extrinsic motivators. Children need love and support, guidance and instruction, but praise in the form of verbal rewards generally does more harm than good, especially when employed as part of a deliberate strategy to reinforce certain ways of behaving. It may alter behavior for a while, but is unlikely to create a personal commitment to the value in question, and may actually reduce the likelihood that the desired behavior will continue when there is no one around to praise it.

Praise - as usually practiced - uses and perpetuates a child's dependence on authority. Those who respond to praise cooperatively and submissively, the ones that light up, eager to please, are those to really worry about. Praise gets them to conform to our wishes irrespective of what those wishes are. It sustains dependence on our evaluations, our decisions about what is good or bad, rather than helping them form their own judgments. It leads them to treasure their worth in terms of what leads us to a smile and to offer the positive words they crave. It can promote insecurity as they become frightened at the prospect of not being able to meet expectations. When our praise, not the love of what they are doing, drives them, praise discourages self-directed learning. This does not mean we don't smile or offer encouragement or enthusiasm. It means we need to think carefully about the problems associated with praise, and consider other alternatives. For example, the purpose of praising often has more to do with benefiting the giver than the recipient. We use it because it means others are more likely to do what we want, or will come to like us better. It has to do with our motives, and what we say and how.

Examining Motives

A solution lies in examining our motives in respect to two general principles:
  1. Self-determination. Will this comment encourage her to make her own judgments about what constitutes good performance? Will it contribute to her ability to choose what kind of person to be? Or does it attempt to manipulate her behavior by getting her to think about whether she has met our criteria?
  2. Intrinsic motivation. Does this comment encourage her to become more deeply involved in what she is doing? Or does it turn the task into something she does to win our approval?

Alternatives to Praise

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