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The Problem with Praise

In the last issue of Juno we described how we’ve found punishment ineffective as a way to support our children to develop strong characters and the skills to make decisions for themselves. In this issue we’d like to explore the ineffectiveness of praise as a way of motivating our children, and suggest an alternative – appreciation (or gratitude).

The ‘problem’ with praise

As we understand it, praise is when we express our approval of a person – not their specific actions or words. Here are some examples you might have heard:

– “Who’s a clever girl, then?”

– “Good boy!”

– “My, you’re a pretty little girl!”

Many parents believe that it is more humane to use praise, along with other kinds of reward, than punishment. Through practising and teaching parents Nonviolent Communication (NVC), we’ve come to see both punishment and reward as aspects of ‘power over’ parenting. In fact, they are necessary if our aim is to get our child to do something against their will. As Sura Hart and Victoria Kindle Hodson say in Respectful Parent, Respectful Kids:

Rewards and punishment are the opposite of respect and co-operation and will result in endless power struggles.

NVC is based on power ‘with’ people, including children. Power ‘with’ is power based on mutual trust and respect, in which people are open to hearing and learning from each other and to giving to each other out of a desire to contribute to each other’s wellbeing, rather than out of fear of punishment or hope of reward. It involves seeking solutions that work for everyone and translating our habitual demands and threats into requests that another person help us to meet our needs.

An unfortunate side-effect

In his book Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes researcher Alfie Kohn gathers together a powerful body of research that shows that children, students, workers, in fact people in general, will continue to perform a desired behaviour only for as long as the praise or other reward lasts. When the praise or reward stops, the behaviour stops. As he says in a subsequent interview:

One of the most thoroughly researched findings in social psychology is that the more you reward someone for doing something, the less interest that person will tend to have in whatever he or she was rewarded to do.

This is still a surprise to us. And yet, when we look at our own experience, we don’t remember ever adopting a behaviour and making it our own because someone praised us for it, but because we recognized that it would enrich our lives (and, by extension, the lives of the people around us). Real learning comes when we appreciate that something e.g. eating certain types of food or going for a walk each day will support us for our own reasons. Perhaps we want to maintain our health or enjoy the sense of vitality we get when we do these things. No amount of praise or criticism will instil this in us. It’s only when we realise that this is what we want, for our own reasons, that we change our behaviour in an integrated and sustainable way.

We’ve come to realise that rewards and punishments encourage children to work for rewards or avoid punishment – instead of doing things because they have intrinsic value to them. Rewards and punishment even take away a child’s desire to co-operate with us.

An alternative to praise

As an alternative to praising our children, we recommend appreciating, expressing gratitude and celebrating. We’re confident that these better supports our children to develop self-confidence, independence and the skills to make decisions for themselves.

Notice that when we appreciate, express gratitude or celebrate, it is for our child’s actions or words – not the whole person. Examples of appreciation, gratitude and celebration are:

– “You’ve dried up all the cutlery – I love it when we work together!”

– “That’s the second time today you’ve said thank you when your sister has passed you a toy. I’m really pleased to see how kind you are with each other.”

– “I see you’ve put on your knickers, socks and dress by yourself this morning. I’m so happy to see how you’re taking care of yourself.”

To summarise, I express:

• exactly what my child did or said e.g. ‘You’ve dried up all the cutlery.’
• how I feel about it e.g. ‘I’m really pleased.’
• what need it meets in me e.g. working together, kindness, take care of ourselves

The money on the table

When Christa’s daughter Lilli was eight, Christa went into hospital for an operation. As she was a single mum at the time, her mother and father came to look after Lilli and her younger sister Mona, who was then six. At that time, Lilli and the other children in her class were learning how to use an ink pen. She didn’t have a way to delete ‘mistakes’ in ink, so the teacher asked her to put brackets round them. Her big challenge was to do her homework in ink with as few mistakes (in brackets) as possible.

Lilli really struggled with concentrating for long enough to do her homework, and easily got frustrated with making ‘mistakes’. While Christa was away her mother found a new way to motivate Lilli. She left a one Euro coin on the corner of the table and told Lilli that if she completed her homework in half an hour and with less than five mistakes, she could take the money and go and spend it on sweets in the shop over the road.

Things seemed to improve under this new arrangement – Lilli did her homework every day and the number of ‘mistakes’ went down. Lilli told this to Christa with pride when she came home from hospital. The next day, Christa’s parents left and Lilli came home from school. Lilli said she didn’t want to do her homework. Christa made her usual suggestion: that she go outside into the garden for a while to clear her head. She did this, and came back in, but she still was struggling to get down to it. Eventually she did, but Christa could hear from her painful cries that she was making more ‘mistakes’ than she wanted.

Christa asked her what she needed to help her do the work and Lilli said that what she really needed was the money on the table. She said she couldn’t do the work without it. Like Pavlov’s dog who learned to salivate at the sound of a bell (because of the number of times it received food at the same time), Lilli had become dependant on the reward to do the task. She had lost a sense of enjoyment in doing it for itself. She had lost the sense of enjoyment in taking the challenge of writing without ‘mistakes’. She had lost the enjoyment of accomplishing something, developing a competence, for its own sake.

How Christa got Lilli ‘back’

When Lilli said she couldn’t do the work without the money on the corner of the table, Christa asked her:

“When you see the money on the table, do you know it make sense to put all the effort in?”

Lilli: Yes, that’s why I need the money! I want Grandma back.

Christa: Ah… when Grandma helps you to do your homework by giving you the money, is it easier for you?

Lilli: Yes, then I have something I can look forward to and it’s easier to get through this bloody hard homework.

Christa: So do you really like a sense of ease and something to enjoy, particularly when there is a lot of work to do?

Lilli: Yes.

Lilli went quiet for a moment and then started again on her homework. The next four or five times she made a mistake, she blamed Christa and started crying, because her needs for support, ease and joy weren’t met. So Christa sat down and listened, mourning with her about her unmet needs and that her favourite strategy didn’t work for Christa, and empathised with her until she asked Christa why she didn’t put the Euro on the table. It was only then that Christa expressed herself. She told Lilli that she also liked ease and joy and when she imagined working longer hours to earn the money to pay Lilli for her work, that was no fun. Then she asked: “How can we both have fun and ease?”
Lilli said, “I’ll think about it.”

After this she didn’t bring up the money topic again. Sometimes she asked for a break in the middle to relax. She looked for other ways to support herself, in a relaxed way. For Christa, it looked as if when Lilli got in touch with her needs and understood what’s important for Christa and the needs she was trying to meet, she was willing to support herself in a self-responsible way.

An exercise you could try

We’ve found that it takes time and practice to train ourselves in learning these skills. Here’s what we suggest: next time you find yourself about to praise your son or daughter, instead we suggest expressing appreciation, gratitude and celebration. It just takes a moment: first, tell them exactly what they did, or are doing, that you appreciate e.g. riding their bike without stabilisers for the first time. Secondly, tell them how you feel about it e.g. delighted, amazed. Thirdly, how it enriches your life e.g. seeing people learning new skills that will give them joy and independence. Fourthly, enjoy the response!

© Shantigarbha and Christa Gronow. This article originally appeared in natural parenting magazine Juno, and has been lightly edited for context.