Praise is a dirty word in some parenting and education circles.
I understand why, and agree that hollow praise like ‘good girl’ or ‘good job’ means nothing and can interfere with a child’s intrinsic motivation if they are always waiting for some meaningless bit of praise to reinforce everything they do. But there is more at stake than just creating ‘praise junkies’… praise can be manipulative.
There I said it…
Praise is manipulative.
I can manipulate and control my kids as much with praise and attention, as I can with consequence and punishment, probably more.
I know this because I was great at this in my early days of teaching.
How do you get a group of 3 and 4 year olds to do what you want them to do? You heap on the praise when they are doing what you want. And when they are not doing what you want, you ignore them. Simple.
It works pretty well for most kids, not all, but most kids, and in a classroom setting it is a way of managing group behaviour that is, in my opinion, better than some tecniques. At least I wasn’t shouting, or shaming, or rewarding good behaviour with stickers or food, but was I being any less manipulative? And what were my actions teaching those kids?
As a parent there is a new angle to the praise game. Praising the good and ignoring the bad is equivalent to giving affection, attention and love to the ‘good child’, and withdrawing love from the ‘bad child’.
And that’s where it hit me…
Do I love my kids less if they do something I don’t like??
Of course not, but that was how I was acting.
I withdrew myself when I didn’t like their behaviour, and in doing so I was trying to manipulate them to be the way I wanted them to be with the most powerful weapons I had… my love and attention.
Now in a perfect world, as soon as I realised that was not how I wanted to parent, I would just be able to snap out of the habit.
In a perfect world I would ditch the manipulative praise and my children would all instantly understand that they are loved unconditionally and would respond quickly and effortlessly to my positive methods of guiding their behaviour, and all would be well.
Sadly, I don’t live in a perfect world, and I am betting you don’t either.
I live in an imperfect world, and in my imperfect world there is still praise.
I don’t think that all praise is evil, it all depends on how you go about it. If my reaction is genuine and not a rote phrase that I barely think about, then I’m good to go. Sure there is still the occasional ‘good job’ that slips out – old habits are hard to break, but occasional is no big deal. And these days I tend to think about what I say more, that’s good advice for everyone!
In my imperfect world there is still some withdrawal of love. I am not proud of it, I don’t like it, but sometimes it happens.
In the heat of the moment, when I am tired, and worn down, when I have no other resources left, sometimes I ignore, or walk away, or withdraw my attention and affection from one child and give it to another. That sounds horrible as I type it, but it is the honest truth. I try to explain it if I can – “I’m sorry, I am just too overwhelmed to deal with this right now.” – or make it right when I have had time to regroup and refresh, but if I am being brutally honest, that is not always the case, and I am working on doing better.
In my imperfect world there is still some manipulation, and I am talking, planned, ‘use praise and ignoring as a way to change this behaviour’ kind of manipulation.
I don’t think this is the best way to deal with my kids, but I weigh it against other things like constantly shouting, dishing out unrelated punishments, lashing out, and losing my mind and some times it is a lesser evil. Sometimes, when everything better has failed, and I am at the end of the line, and something really really has to change, sometimes I drag out my old strategy and use praise and ignoring as a way of changing my child’s behaviour.
In my imperfect world there is also lots of support and encouragement, regardless of how well or badly my children appear to be doing.
There is a lot of giving of attention when my kids are struggling – it’s the first thing I try now instead of the first thing I remove.
There is a lot of me trying to let my children be who they are, without trying to change them, and a lot of loving them, no matter what, and telling them so.
In my imperfect world there is a conscious effort to change the way I praise my children.
To break the habit of hollow, unthinking praise, and the habit of manipulative praise, and turn it into something more worthwhile. as well as working on being a better parent, as always.
Find out how I am working on breaking the habit of hollow praise here, and download my free printable A4 poster to help you remember some alternatives to “good job”