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”
Read the comments or scroll down to add your own:
Mrs W says
I never thought before about how hollow some praise can be. And giving attention when they’re struggling is when it’s hardest for all involved, but like you say, probably when it’s most needed. My current parenting struggle is related- how to deal with the constant bad behaviour when nothing seems to work, and changing our reactions because they aren’t how we want to parent. But when talking doesn’t work, ignoring doesn’t, time-out doesn’t…the next places we go to out of desperation are yelling, empty threats, and manipulating with meaningless rewards. I can only take comfort in the fact that we’re trying to do better, even if there is nothing to show for it.
Have you read my ‘pre planning parenting’ post?
When things have gone to hell in a handbasket around here, when I finally stop yelling and ranting and losing my mind I often fall back to trying to think out what might be going wrong and make some plans to change things that might make it better.
Of course there is no one fail proof answer, and like you said, there is a lot to be said for wanting to do better, even if you are struggling!
Mrs W says
I read all of your posts Kate! Yes I remember reading that one. It was very useful advice. My struggle is turning the best intentions in to actions, which I can manage to do sometimes but there are plenty of moments that slip through the cracks, when my mouth runs off with itself before my brain has a chance to reason with it!
Oh I so know how that feels!
Pre-planning a ‘positive first response’ is the best thing for me in those moments. If I can trot out a stock response that is positive it buys me time to think or even walk away…. but I still have plenty of moments when that doesn’t happen! I think that just makes us human, and even more so that we are trying to do better.
Kate Lloyd says
You always get me thinking and reflecting on my parenting Kate and it’s wonderful. I try and be conscious about how I praise my little girl but it’s so easy to slip into those ‘hollow praise’ comments and without thinking. Thank you for this great reminder to always be present and conscious about how we interact with our children. I look forward to hearing more about your journey over the next week.
But I am a little confused, as what you are talking about sounds exactly like the ‘positive parenting’ method that my health nurse and others tell me that I should be using to teach and discipline my children.
It is probably exactly what your health nurse are talking about.
It’s a behaviorist approach, much like Pavlov’s Dogs if you know of that research. If you reward good behavior (with praise) and don’t reward bad behavior (by ignoring or withdrawing) then the good behavior will increase. It works well with kids, especially when they are little, and I think it is better than many other discipline methods, which is why I admit I still choose it at times.
But it is worth thinking about how and why it works, whether you want to use it all the time, what messages it might be sending, and what the long term repercussions might be.
If a child only ever does the right thing when they think they will be praised for it, what happens when there is no one there to praise them? If we will withdraw our love and attention from a child who is struggling, what does that teach them? That when you struggle or get something wrong you are not worth loving?
As with everything when it comes to parenting… there is no one right way, and I think being informed and thinking about what we do and why is the best way we can be a better parent.
Dawne Morgan says
Hello, I am a parent educator and Behaviorist. Thank you for encouraging positive praise! Wonderful thoughtful article! However If your going to use the word “behaviorist”, Skinner is the man responsible for application of those techniques, principals of behavior (reinforcement/punishment/extinction) as they pertain to shaping human behavior. Your spot in with Pavlov, but that was conditioning behavior, you want to shape and build behaviors. Behaviorists, who use the science of applied behavior analysis (ABA) recommend techniques like you describe that utilize reinforcement (praise) first in regards to strengthening and shaping behavior. Basic rule is reinforce (praise) whatever you want to see more of. Punishment is used to extinguish behavior and should be last resort. Sure punishment stops behaviors (scolding/yelling/time out) but it does not build behaviors, and if used excessively damages relationships. Kids need to know what to do more than what not to do. Like you mentioned, when praising be specific, that way kids know what they did right and they can do it again! “you did a great job calming down in store, thank you for listening to me in when I asked you to stop yelling” I also recommend positive instruction, a concept in that you tell child what you would like them to do versus what you want them to stop doing. The latter leads to nagging and yelling, the former lets child know how to come in contact with praise and reinforcement. “I can see you are frustrated and want to leave store, I am asking you to stop yelling at me, I am tired of store too. Lets work together to get out of here and do something fun. We need to get milk, eggs and juice and then we will leave. Can we do that? (assess if they can) What fun thing should we do when we leave?” I recommend positive parenting practices exclusively, it gets the job done and establishes a healthier relationship between parent and child. Most important it sets groundwork for solid connection and healthy communication practices for when kiddos enter tweens/teens. Goodness knows you need it then! Lastly what your wonderful positive approach also does is reinforce parents attending to their kids. Children are developmentally designed to soak up attention and learn from their environment, if we are not tuned into them (on our smartphones/computers) they are left to their won devices to gather necessary attention and its not always appropriate :)
About 3 years ago when my oldest was around three I was told to Praise the “action” so that the child was aware of what they had tried to achieve or were doing. It took a good bit of thinking to be able to praise the action and I still find my self slipping occasionally and hollow praising.
Just this weekend we found we had to give attention when our kids was struggling – his behavior was appalling but it was a direct result of feeling over anxious and feeling unable to cope at a social occasion. When he got “one on one” attention he was able to modify his behavior and rejoin the social occasion.
But isn’t saying “good job” praising the action? Doing the “job” being the action? It’s not very specific, but I fail to see how saying “good job” doesn’t qualify as praising the action.
If you think about it from a three year old’s perspective – what is a ‘job’ anyway? And what was good about it?
That phrase doesn’t actually tell a child much about what they did or why they are getting praise which is why it is referred to as ‘hollow praise’ sure you are praising the action, but you leave it up to the child to guess which action and why you are praising it.
I loved reading this, because I am trying my best to parent my 3 year old in a positive (non-manipulative) way… One of the best books I have read that really struck a chord with me was “Unconditional Parenting” by Alfie Kohn. Have you read it? Do you have any other recommendations for quality books? Recently I have been trying to “label” his actions, for example, “That was a really kind thing to do, did you see how happy you made (the other person) feel?” and I can see lots of positives with this kind of talk, but I still feel like I am “judging” him and am wondering how this will translate into him making judgements of his own behaviour as be grows up… hmmm….!!! Tough business, this thoughtful parenting! (But like others have said, caring about how you parent is surely the most important step!) Love reading your thoughts and approach to parenting – it gives me a chance to reflect on my own :-)
More great food for thought from you, Kate. I was reflecting upon this a little myself the other day after my daughter told me that when I was cross with her she felt like I didn’t love her. Which of course is not the way I want her to feel which is why I’m always telling my children that there may be aspects of their behaviour from time to time that I’m not happy with or that I feel they’ve made the wrong choice with, I still love them unconditionally. But, am I just telling them that and not showing them that through my actions? By withdrawing my attention and affection when they display behaviour that I don’t want repeated? What is the alternative though? Looking forward to reading about how you are changing this.
Excellent post Kate – I feel a very similar way about praise too. And like you I am not perfect and it happens in my house.
I’m just finding your blog, I like what you have to say. I’ve found myself guilty of this too, as well as hollow praise. I love the alternatives to hollow praise. Those are the thing I am consciously trying to say, but an occasional “good job!” Or “awesome” squeaks by.
Sue Lively says
Kate – you’re right on the money with this one! I never really gave the whole idea much thought until I listened to Alfie Kohn speak about this very issue. He describes praise as just the “flip side” of punishment – something I already discovered that I don’t believe in using with my 2.5 year old son. Thanks for a great article! I have read many of your posts and would LOVE to have you contribute to my new “Attachment Parenting” pinterest board if you’re interested. I will send you an invite if you like? Best, Sue
I want to say thank you for putting this into words and for sharing it with the world!! These are such true things. I grew up as a praise junkie and recognized the minute I was being manipulated when the absence happened! I’ve also noted this behavior in myself with my nephews and other small children. I am now a new mom and want more for my kids. To be better and try differently. I know like you, it won’t always be perfect and it will happen, that I will silently slip into the withholding of attention but I want to be conscious of it! Thank you for this post and for the alternatives that you have listed in the following post!
From what I have learned praise and encouragement are two very different things. It seems like you are considering both as praise. Encouragement is helpful like “good work” praise is not “good boy”. It is directed at the activity or the person. When it is directed at the activity, how is that harmful?
I agree praise and encouragement are two different things… and while I am talking about ‘hollow praise’ here encouragement can also be used in that way. Encouragement can still be used as a way to manipulate behavior, and a phrase such as ‘good job’ still doesn’t give the child any useful information. What did I do that was good? What was good about it? Whey does it matter?
I don’t think either praise or encouragement is ‘harmful’ when we think about how we use it and what we are actually saying.
Not even just at home but with teachers and learning too in a slightly different context! Have you heard/read anything by Carol Dweck? She’s a psychologist at Stanford who does a lot of research on praise and its pitfalls!
hello, i am writing my masters on praise and motivation and after reading your article i hope to include parts of this when talking about the pros of praise. to do this please could i have your full name as i want to acknowledge you and your article properly
You can just credit it to Kate Fairlie at picklebums.com if you like :)