One of the toughest conversations for most parents to get their heads around is the idea that praise might actually be a negative thing.

Yup, you heard that right.  Praise can hurt.

Now, I know it seems a bit crazy to say, but suspend disbelief for a moment and see if this makes sense to you.

A child who is given external praise is more likely to end up externally motivated, and less able to tap in to his or her own ideas about what is good and bad, right and wrong, excellently or poorly done.  

Here’s why.

Praise, especially from a person that a child is deeply attached to, is a reward for behaviour – like offering candy for playing nicely with another child.  What we know is that research consistently shows that when people are rewarded for behaviours, the reward becomes MORE interesting and important to the person, and the behaviour rewarded for becomes less interesting and important to the child.  Oops!!!  

Read that again!

What this means is that when we reward a child for reading, they start to find the pizza party MORE attractive than they otherwise would have, and they start to find the reading LESS attractive than they otherwise would have.  

Praise, like rewards, muddles our thinking and moves us away from our intrinsic motivations and desires.  We start to focus on getting more praise, rather than on exploring our own possibilities.  

One huge issue with praise is the opportunity cost – when you choose praise, conversations are shorter (for a number of reasons I won’t go into here), and you lose the opportunity to find out what’s really going on for your child.  

Most parents tell me that the most important thing for them is to build a relationship with their child that is open and honest.  They want their child to come to them when they need to talk, or need help.  

Research shows that praise sets up expectations from the child’s perspective, and a desire to keep in the praiser’s good graces. “Mom thinks I’m great. What if she finds out I messed up? She might not love me anymore.” or “Dad always says I’m so smart. What’s he going to think when he finds out I failed my math test?”  Children who are given lots of praise tend to lie more, hide their mistakes more, and be more afraid to try new things.  

Think of two conversations:

Mom: Wow!  Nice picture, honey!  Good job!  You are a great artist!
Child: (Drops picture on table, goes to produce another one to get more of that yummy praise.)


Mom: You look really pleased with this picture.  You’ve used red and blue and green.
Child: Yeah!  Look!  I made swirls!  That’s wind.
Mom: Cool.  Why did you choose red?
Child: It’s fall time.  That’s leaves flying around.  But it didn’t really turn out like I wanted.  You can’t tell they’re leaves!  

The conversation grows deeper when the praise is removed.  

So, parents say, now I’m not praising.  I just stand there like a doorknob when my child does something great?  How’s that work?

The goal is to reflect your child’s experience, rather than superimposing your own experience, judgment, and opinion on your child.  There are several ways to do this.  In the example above, the mom noticed her child’s expression and reflected that back.  Then she described what she saw (the colours in the picture), then she asked about the child’s process.  This non-evaluative conversation opens the door to the child’s own experience of the work she’s done.  

Along the same vein, celebrate WITH your child (again, reflecting your child’s experience, NOT celebrating with or without them).  “You look happy!  You tied your own shoe!!!  How exciting!” 

Most of all, talk about the child’s experience, rather than skill level. “You LOVE bike riding!” or “You are having fun!” Research also shows that when we’re always focused on whether or not we’re GOOD at something, we don’t ENJOY things as much. When parents constantly focus on how good their child is at things, the child begins to feel burdened with the need to achieve in order to earn love and approval. 

Really happy people achieve because it feels good, because they care about those around them and because they want to contribute in the world, and explore their own potential.  
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences around praise!  Please share below.