I have been thinking a lot about praise recently. I am currently a few weeks into a brilliant e-course by motherhood and business coach Ray Dodd and it has been digging up a lot of things for me, one of which has been exploring praise and criticism, and the impact these have on my self worth (if this is a topic you’re interested in, I recommend reading Playing Big – warning, it’s not a parenting book!). Exploring my own my relationship with praise has got me thinking about praise and parenting, and I wanted to share some thoughts with you.
In our house, we try our hardest not to praise Frida, just as we don’t do rewards or punishments. That means no sticker charts, no “good girl!”, and no “well done for eating all your lunch”. Here are some of the reasons why:
We choose to take a whole child approach to parenting, rather than focusing solely on Frida’s behaviour.
People often talk about behaviour as if it exists in isolation. This is so prevalent in parenting these days that it is rarely thought about or questioned. Child sleeping badly? No problem – just train it out of them. You want your toddler to pee in the potty? Chocolate buttons will solve that. Pre-schooler is not doing as they are told? Time out for them, then.
I think this quote from Alfie Kohn summarises it well: “When we constantly talk about a child’s behaviour, we’re acting as though nothing matters except the stuff on the surface. It’s not a question of who kids are, what they think, or feel, or need. Forget motives or values: the idea is just to change what they do.” He goes on to say that “Praise usually reflects a preoccupation with behaviour”.
I know that this is not how I want to parent, or how I want Frida to feel. When I look at how Frida acts, I want to go deeper and consider why she is acting that way, how she is feeling, and what she is communicating by doing so. Those who choose a whole child approach to parenting believe that it’s the child who engages in parenting who matters, not the behaviour itself.
I believe strongly that children are inherently good, and that “problematic” behaviour usually stems from a) unrealistic expectations from the caregiver (ie. the behaviour is actually totally developmentally normal!) or b) from a deeper feeling or need that the child needs to express or work through. I don’t believe that children need “training”; rather, I think that as parents we should model the behaviour we would like to see (manners are a good example of this) and try to meet our children’s needs.
Although praise is often seen as apart from rewards and punishments, verbal praise is just another form of reward (and rewards are just the flip side of punishments), and as such praise aims to modify behaviour and exercise control,rather than engaging with the needs of the whole child.
We want to encourage a growth mindset in our daughter, rather than a fixed mindset.
The way we praise our children can have a profound impact on their mindset. Praising outcomes, or giving generic praise like “you are smart”, “that was so clever”, and “well done” can lead to what is called a fixed mindset. This is a belief that intelligence is fixed and innate, and our actions will not impact it. This leads to a fear of failure and an avoidance of risk due to an internal pressure to succeed and keep feeling smart. Effort makes those with a fixed mindset feel stupid, as they feel as though they should just “get” things because they are naturally smart. They do things because they want praise and recognition; the praise is the end goal, not the work or activity itself.
Conversely, encouraging children to work hard and put in effort, or commenting positively on the process rather than the finished product, can lead to a growth mindset. This is a belief that intelligence is fluid, and can be grown by putting in effort and working hard. Challenges are embraced because they lead to learning.
The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable KidsEdit has an excellent chapter on this topic. In it, the authors talk about a study where children were given an easy task to complete. The group was then split in two; the first half were told that they succeeded because they were smart, and the second group were told they succeeded because they put effort in and worked hard. They were then asked to choose another task to complete, one of which was easy and one more challenging. Those in the second group were more likely to choose the task which was challenging and which would stretch them, but the first group were more likely to choose the “safe” easy task. The groups were then asked to self-report their scores; the second group exaggerated their results by 10%, whereas the first group exaggerated by 40%!
It’s interesting to note that children who do “well” at school are often not those who become leaders in their fields. I wonder if this is because these children develop a fixed mindset around their intelligence, so grow to be adults who choose the safe option and avoid risks.
We want Frida to develop a strong sense of internal motivation rather than seeking external motivation.
In Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason Alfie Kohn mentions several different pieces of research which show pretty unambiguously that praise and rewards erode internal motivation. Yes, you read that right – praising someone for doing a task makes them less likely to complete that task successfully.
He gives the example of two sets of children who were given a new drink to try; one half were praised every time they drank it, the second group were just given the drink. At the end of a week, the children who were praised for drinking reported that they liked the drink far less than the children who were not praised. This also applies to more important behaviour than trying a new drink; research shows that children who are praised for being generous are less likely to at generously again in future. Children who are praised for being “nice” are less likely to think of themselves as nice people, and are less likely to help others when there is no reward (including verbal praise) attached. It is sobering reading.
Praising children can lead to children (and adults!) who are “hooked on praise”, and who focus on how people will react to their actions rather than focusing on the tasks themselves and the internal satisfaction doing something well can bring. They become less able to take pride in their own accomplishments. Again, we see praise creating a pressure not to fail by external standards; an avoidance of risk in order to keep external praise coming.
Anyone who has observed a baby or young toddler will see that they do not need praise! The look of pure pride on the face of a baby who has just learned to crawl, or the “I did it!” from a toddler who has managed to jump with both feet for the first time, should tell us all we need to know about internal motivation and how strong it is in children. Let’s not dilute that powerful drive and feeling of self-satisfaction.
So, if we don’t praise, what can we do instead?
- We can pay attention to what our children are doing, and show an interest in their play and work. Showing an interest is a wonderful way to encourage children, and shows them we value what they are doing.
- Give evaluation-free statements instead of praise, and/or ask questions. “Look mummy, I drew a dinosaur!” “You drew a green dinosaur. What is this bit of red here? What made you decide to use those colours?” Again, this shows our children we are genuinely interested in what they are doing and that we notice them.
- Say thank you. If Frida helps me, for example by chopping some vegetables, I say thank you, just like I would if another adult helped me in the kitchen. I might be more specific and say “You chopped the courgette really finely, that is exactly what I needed. Thank you.” Can you see how this is different to saying “Good girl for helping!”?
- Tell them we love them. Not just when they do something which pleases us, but all the time. I also like to tell Frida “I love playing with you”, “I look forward to reading books with you”, and “I really enjoy spending time with you”. This is not praise, but does communicate how much I love her and how valued she is.
Earlier in this post I said we try our hardest not to praise, rather than we never praise; this is because avoiding praise is not something that comes naturally to me. I was raised with praise, both at home and at school and avoiding praise is not common practice in the society in which we live, so I have to work hard at avoiding it in my parenting. I am not writing this post as a perfect parent – none of us are! – but as someone who is on a journey to be a more respectful, positive, gentle and mindful parent every day. I hope this post has given you some food for thought.
I recorded a long, honest video on this topic in my Facebook group A Beautiful Childhood with some practical prompts to get you thinking about what praise means to you, and alternatives which work for your family – why not join in?
A Beautiful Childhood is a supportive space to discuss peaceful parenting, Montessori, home education, outdoor play, gentle discipline, open ended toys, beautiful books, and much more. Come and join us!