Praising Our Way into Trouble
Meet the Author
Think you can never praise a child enough? Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise and Other Bribes (Houghton Mifflin), might convince you to think again. FamilyEducation.com Editor Ann Svensen spoke with Kohn about the difference between praise and positive feedback, and why he thinks that too much praise is bad for kids.
FamilyEducation: I've always heard that you can never praise a child too much. And personally, I like having my accomplishments recognized. I was surprised to discover that you think praise can be harmful.
Kohn: I do not object to positive feedback or encouragement -- helping people feel acknowledged so that their interest in a task is redoubled. That's not a bad thing. But most praise given to kids is in the form of a verbal reward, which can have a destructive impact: It feels controlling, and it can undermine interest in the task itself.
I think we have to look long and hard at our motives for giving praise, as well as at the effect of receiving it. If our motive is to manipulate a child's future behavior, as in: "I really liked the way you cleaned up the table so fast after dinner," then we're most likely jerking our kids around to get them to do something for our own convenience. There, I would not expect a long-term positive effect, and I would expect some resentment.
When Is Praise Okay?
FamilyEducation: When is praise okay?
Kohn: If we offer positive responses because we're genuinely excited about something a child has done, such as painting a great picture or asking a shrewd question, I have fewer problems because our motives are better. However, there's still the possibility that the praise will become the main message for the child.
When we offer these kinds of comments on a regular basis, we turn kids into praise junkies; they become hooked on our approval, and are not inclined or able to reflect on their own actions and think about whether those actions made sense. Instead, the child looks to us to see if we are pleased. That can be a very comfortable position for us, but it's not in the long-term best interest of the child.
How to Stop Over-Praising
FamilyEducation: Praise plays such a big role in how most people interact with their kids and with each other. How can we possibly just stop doing it?
Kohn: Of all the things I teach about, even going beyond rewards and punishments, the piece having to do with praise is the hardest for me to put into practice in my own life. When I don't praise, I feel weird -- as if my interaction is chilly or sterile. It's as if I'm withholding something. But I've slowly come to realize that I praise more because I need to say it than because the child needs to hear it. And whenever that's true, boy, is it time to rethink our practice!
FamilyEducation: So how do you suggest we react when a child accomplishes something?
Kohn: The alternative to praise is not sullen silence. We could respond in a number of other ways. We could describe what a child has done without any evaluation attached: "I noticed that you..." as opposed to "I'm so proud of you for ...."
Better yet, we could ask questions: "How do you feel about the story you wrote? What was the most fun part about writing it? What's your favorite color in this painting? What do you think caused the Civil War?" This provides children with the support and acknowledgment they need, but it also engages them in becoming better thinkers and more autonomous people.
FamilyEducation: Can this help us get to know our kids better?
Kohn: Yes, by opening up a two-way avenue of communication. Here's a good example: A man came up to me just yesterday after a lecture and said, "I guess instead of telling my child 'I'm so proud of you,' I should be saying, 'Aren't you proud of yourself?'"
I responded, "That sounds like a step in the right direction, but why are you telling the child how she probably feels? It would be better to ask the child how she feels and engage her in a conversation."
But then it all depends on what your goal is. If it's a child who is autonomous, reflective, ethical, and hooked on learning, then you would think very seriously about marinating that child in praise, or offering him the equivalent of doggy biscuits for doing what you like. If your goal is just to get kids to do what you demand, then by all means use praise, stickers, stars, ice cream, and punishments all the time. I offer this distinction somewhat rhetorically because I cannot imagine a responsible parent who would pick the latter course after thinking about the alternatives.
Why Is Praise So Pervasive?
FamilyEducation: If praise and other rewards are as bad as you say, then why are they so pervasive?
Kohn: Part of the problem is that we're fixated on behavior. Whenever I hear a parent talk about the need to change a certain behavior in his child, I wince because I know what's coming: rewards and punishments. Those are the tricks we use to change a behavior. But a behavior is just the surface reflection of deeper issues: how the child feels and thinks and who the child is. Let me give an example: Two children on separate playgrounds share sandwiches with a peer. Is this something good that we should celebrate? My answer is: I don't know yet. I want to know why the kid did it.
Child "A" did it because she was hoping her mom would notice and gush with approval: "Oh that was such a generous thing to do, I'm so proud of you for sharing." Child "B" did it because she was concerned that the other child would go hungry.
Now: which of these two motives would you choose to support and see continue? Which of these motives do you think praise is likely to perpetuate? When you think about it, positive reinforcement is not so positive. But it never even occurs to us to ask these questions because we're thinking about behavior instead of motives and values.
FamilyEducation: Should we not recognize that child's generosity at all?
Kohn: First let's ask why we think it's necessary to do so. When a parent says, "You have to offer positive reinforcement when a child does something good," the implication is that children would never want to help if they didn't receive that reinforcement. The assumption of a need for positive reinforcement usually suggests a very dim, even cynical view of children, which I don't think is justified.
My second point is that if you feel like you have to offer something, why not just help the child experience more directly the effect of her action on the other child? "Look at Jessica's face. Now she's smiling. Now she has something to eat too." That's not praise. That's not "I'm so proud of you." That's a gentle bit of assistance that directs the child's attention to the effects of her own action.
That's a vote of confidence for kids. When they can see the effects of their actions that help and that hurt, they'll be more likely to help. And they'll do so because they're slowly building a sense of themselves as people who want to help, not just because they're trying to please Mommy.
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