The Right Way to Praise Children

January 29, 2015

There is no dispute as to whether praise is an important tool in raising confident kids with a healthy sense of self-esteem. The argument comes when we try to decide on the when, where and how of praising.

How much praising is too much? How much is too little? When is it beneficial to the child to receive praise? Is the quality of the praise more important to the quantity? These are essential questions to have answered for 'not all praise is created equal.' Alfie Kohn, an expert and author on this topic, in his book Kohn, A. (2001). Five reasons to stop saying, "good job!". Young Children, 56(5), 24–30, explains why praise may be harmful for children.

He claims that praise:

  • manipulates children – praise is a way of getting children to comply with adults' wishes. This works in the short term because young children want adults' approval. But Kohn argues that we should not take advantage of children's dependence.
  • creates praise "junkies" – the more praise children receive, the more they rely on adult evaluations instead of forming their own judgments.
  • steals a child's pleasure – children deserve to delight in their accomplishments instead of being judged. Most people don't think a statement like "Good job!" is a judgment, but Kohn argues that it's as much an evaluation as "Bad job".
  • decreases interest – research has shown that people tend to lose interest in activities for which they have been praised. Instead of motivating a child to engage in an activity, praise motivates a child to get more praise.
  • reduces achievement – children who are praised for creative tasks tend to stumble at the next task. This may be because of the pressure created to continue to keep up the good work, and because the child has lost interest. In addition, children who are praised are less likely to take risks, as they may fear they won't receive positive feedback. It's also been found that students who receive positive reinforcement do not persist in the face of difficulties (Maclellan, 2005).

But not all praise is equal and not all praise is harmful!

Person Praise
This type of praise evaluates a child's attributes, like his intelligence. Person praise evaluates a child generally, telling her that she is good or smart. Examples of this kind of praise include, "You're a good girl", "I'm very proud of you". Studies have shown that person praise reduces motivation, focuses students on their performance and encourages them to compare their performance with that of others.

Process praise
This type of praise is related to the child's effort, and focuses on his behaviour and actual "work". Examples of process praise include "you tried really hard" or "I see how carefully you are building that bridge". Process praise has been shown to encourage children to be flexible, acknowledge their weaknesses, and take on challenges.
Suggestions for Effective (motivating) Praise

  1. Be specific. Use descriptive praise. Instead of saying, "You're such a good baseball player," say, "You hit the ball really hard and you are an excellent first baseman." Being specific is much better and helps kids identify with their unique skills.
  2. Be genuine. Praise should always be genuine. Kids have a way of knowing when your praise is insincere, and when it is, you lose trust. As well, they may become insecure because they don't believe your positive words.
  3. Encourage new activities. Praise kids for trying new things, like learning to ride a bike or tie their shoelaces, and for not being afraid to make mistakes.
  4. Don't praise the obvious. Try not to overdo praise about a child's attributes: 'You're so smart, handsome, pretty, bright, talented, gifted'" .
  5. Say it when you mean it. Saying, "Good job," when you mean it or, "Boy, you really worked hard on that paper," tells children that, as parents, you recognize the value of their hard work and efforts. It also tells them that you know the difference between when they work hard at something and when it comes easy.
  6. Focus on the process. Praise children for their effort and hard work, not for their inherent talents. Remember, it's the process not the product that matters. Not all kids will be fantastic athletes or brilliant students or accomplished musicians. But children who learn to work hard and persevere have a special talent. Ultimately then, what is the goal when it comes to encouraging children? Kohn suggests we want to encourage our children to be self-motivated and to embrace challenge… and that means not making them dependent on praise.