Psychologists fight, but it is a very dull sport to watch. They fire volleys of academic papers at each other before slinking back to their universities and clinics. The dull bit is that you cannot tell who has won. One current raging battle is about praising children. Some say praise is great and some say it is just manipulation that turns kids into spineless ‘pleasers’. I’ve wandered through the smoke and noise of the battle field (i.e. I have done some pretty intense Googling) to find out what the two camps are on about. Both sides have got their heavy-duty PhDs and their research and they both sound very plausible, so how could anyone choose who is right? Well, I can. Of course, I could be wrong, but I am assuming you probably won’t be able to prove it!
I had always thought that praise was great. “Praise is the fastest route to change” is a quote I saw years ago, not in a parenting book but in a management manual. It went on to say that praise works faster than nagging, threats, and bribes in changing behaviour to the desired outcome. I took that advice to heart and it has been one of my staple beliefs about how to raise children. I’ve used it at home with my own kids and taught it in courses and seminars. I’ve always found it creates a very agreeable atmosphere in the home, as well as ‘doing the trick’ of shaping their behaviour.
One of the things I especially liked about praise as a parenting tool is that it encourages us to seek out and focus on children’s positive behaviour, rather than just discovering their misbehaviour and criticising it. I suspect parents possess an innate super-sense to spot mischief, even through solid walls. (Surely some psychologist could get a grant to research this.) Most parents seem to be able to stare at a closed bedroom door and tell, just by the mere silence emanating from it, that their children must be up to something on the other side! With a little effort, that same ability can be tweaked to spot their good behaviour and not just their bad.
When you focus on the positive, it is amazing how much you actually like your children more – even if it does not budge behaviour one iota – at least it feels like you have got nicer kids. But it does change behaviour – even the critics of praise concede that – and that is actually one of the key objections critics have of praise – it is controlling. “Praise is a verbal reward, often doled out in an effort to change someone’s behaviour, typically someone with less power”, writes education expert, Alfie Kohn. “More to the point, it’s likely to be experienced as controlling regardless of the praiser’s intention. Praise is a pat on the head, ‘pat’ being short for ‘patronising’”, he says in an article called Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job’ (https://www.alfiekohn.org/parenting/gj.htm). Professor Rheta DeVries of the University of Northern Iowa calls it ‘sugar-coated control’. Basically it is behaviourism, an attempt to manipulate people like lab rats with rewards and punishments. It assumes that all the behaviour is due to the reward – it ignores the feelings, values and other motives that might be involved.
In two books, Punished by Rewards and Unconditional Parenting, Kohn unpacks some of his other objections. He thinks it creates “praise junkies who are constantly looking for approval and who depend on other people for their self-esteem. It makes them afraid of losing that constant stream of feedback.” Research by Mary Budd Rowe in Florida found that when students were highly-praised by their teachers, they were a lot less confident about giving answers in class, less likely to share ideas, backed down quickly if challenged by an adult and gave up on difficult tasks – it seemed that whenever there was a chance that they might jeopardise getting a ‘well done!’ from the teacher, they weren’t prepared to take that risk. Like a drug, they got used to a regular high dose of praise, and when praise is withheld, it really feels like a punishment.
I recall Dr Sylvia Rimm, when she visited New Zealand many years ago, talking about why bright kids often fail in higher education. Throughout their early school years they received high levels of praise – they got honoured as ‘top-of-the-class’ and their work was held up in front of others. But as they move up into high school and university, they get streamed in amongst other bright kids. They are no longer the top of the pile – they are just one of many similarly-smart students. They may still be getting a reasonable amount of good feedback, but nothing like the rate of praise they received when they were the star of their primary classroom, the big fish in the little school pond. The drop feels awful, and many kids give up making the effort that keeps them achieving. What about kids who are not such high achievers? They simply dislike the idea of being judged. “The most notable feature of a positive judgment isn’t that it’s positive, but that it’s a judgment. And people, including kids, don’t like being judged,” says Kohn.
Praise might even take the pleasure and interest out of doing things. If you practise the piano, there is an ‘intrinsic’ reward – music! You can actually play the piano! But what if you practise the piano to get stickers on a reward chart or some other award or treat? Those are ‘extrinsic’ rewards. “What happens when you get older and don’t get stars?” asks Paul Raeburn in Psychology Today. “Do you lose interest in practising when you’ve lost extrinsic rewards that you’ve become accustomed to? The research suggests that you do.” He continues, “We praise drawings or spelling papers because we want our kids to continue to work hard and to do good work. But what we really want to teach our children is that they should do good work because of the satisfaction it provides, not to earn praise from parents or teachers. I’ve often wondered why so few Americans read books – serious novels and non-fiction. Could it be because we were so conditioned to getting A’s for reading Melvile or Hawthorne that there is no joy left in reading them for the pleasure and enlightenment they provide? I can’t cite research to answer that question, but I think it’s a good guess.”
What if that also applies to moral behaviour? What happens if kids learn to be kind and generous and caring simply because it attracts the positive attention of adults? Does the good behaviour stop when the rewards do? Alarmingly, yes! Or so some research seems to suggest. Joan Grusec in Toronto noted that children who were praised for generosity became less generous in the playground (when they weren’t being praised by the teacher) than kids who were not. Generosity became a means of getting praise from adults and not just something that felt good to do. So have Kohn and crew convinced me to shelve praise as a parenting tool? No, but their evidence does suggest ways in which we modify our use of praise.
Secondly, I do take very seriously Kohn’s points about intrinsic versus extrinsic rewards, but I think that a praise and reward system can still have a place. External rewards, like praise and star charts, are great ways to start behaviour moving in a new direction, but it is not ideal for maintaining it. The trick is to help the child realise the real value or pleasure of what they are doing. You might start off by praising them for cleaning their bedroom, but you move on to saying things like, “It must be really nice having a room that is so tidy and you can find everything”, “I feel good every time I go in your room – I bet you do too, it’s so nice and tidy.” You are moving from an external reward to an internal reward, teaching them to reward themselves. You move from, “Good on you for doing your homework” to, “Once you get the hang of it, isn’t science fascinating!” You are connecting them to the intrinsic reward of knowledge rather than simply getting approval for work done.First of all, I do believe that it is right for parents to shape children’s behaviour. It’s not manipulation, it’s parenting. We have the benefit of decades of experience, we have learned that things like manners, respect, generosity and cooperation actually work very well. It is not a matter of wanting to control or impose our wills on children, it is the firm belief that the most loving thing to do for children is to help them learn to behave ‘well’ – it is the the best thing for them and society.
We should also beware of empty praise and excessive praise. Children soon pick up on the fact that this is meaningless and manipulative. When Farmer Hoggett says, “That’ll do, pig” at the end of the movie Babe, it is powerful not because it is part of a torrent of praise but for the very opposite. Those few words from a taciturn man spoke volumes, and the pig (and audience) melted.
And finally, there is a huge difference between ‘person’ praise and ‘process’ praise. A team led by Elizabeth Gundersen at The University of Chicago have been doing a long-term project. They filmed parents interacting with their children, in their own homes. They did it when the children were one, then two and again at three. Five years later, they tested the now eight-year-old children, measuring all sorts of behaviours. How those children were praised, when they were little, seemed to have a big effect. Some parents praised their kids with things like, “You’re a clever kid”, “You’re tall”, “You’re pretty”. This is called ‘person praise’ – compliments for who and what they were – their intelligence, skill, looks, height – things they have no control over. Other kids were praised for their effort and their actions – that’s called ‘process praise’ – and those kids at eight enjoyed challenging tasks, they could overcome setbacks and believed that hard work could improve intelligence and personality. Person praise locks kids into thinking you are what you are – if they don’t do well, they think that’s just the way they are, but process praise gives kids the exciting belief that they can change and get better. “These findings suggest that improving the quality of early parental praise may help children develop the belief that their future success is in their own hands,” said Gunderson.
So go ahead and be generous with praise – just be sure it is not empty, manipulative and taking away a child’s real motivation. Praise them for their efforts and actions, rather than their looks and intelligence. Some may worry our children will depend too much on our approval, but I doubt there are few things nicer to have in the back of our heads than the idea that our mum and dad are proud of us.