Freeing children from the burden of our praise

Liv has been learning and mastering new skills everyday since she was born, but nowadays many of those skills are tangible things I can see. And although she never needed my praise to reach milestones like tracking with her eyes or holding her head up, now that she’s doing “grown up” things everyday, it suddenly feels like I need to follow those things up with praise. Which, in reality, isn’t true at all.

Last week, for example, I asked Liv for a kiss. For the first time she leaned forward and gave me one. I squealed with delight, clapped my hands, and said…wait for it….”GOOOOOOOOOD JOOOB!”


I regretted it instantly.

Saying ‘thank you’, or, ‘I really liked that’, or simply just smiling at her all would have been much more meaningful reactions. But good job? Can you imagine if you gave your partner a kiss and he responded with “good job!” ??

Which made me think: how would I feel if every time I stood up, or used a spoon, or pressed a button, the people around me erupted into cheers and applause? It would be ridiculous and unnatural. And for this reason, I don’t think we need to be applauding our child’s each and every move either.

To me, it’s important to foster Liv’s ability to motivate herself. I don’t want her to go through life doing things to earn praise from the important adults in her life. Instead, she should do things because she finds pleasure in them. Because she feels proud of herself when she learns something new. I want her to hold on tightly to that intrinsic motivation all children are born with.

What does that look like?

Well, for starters, it means not praising every little and mundane thing she does (Alfie Kohn uses the term “raising praise junkies” here).

Picture the child at the park who shouts, “Mom! Watch!” over and over again while doing something obviously very easy for him. Children like this have become little performers instead of little explorers. They don’t do things simply because they love to do them. It sounds exhausting (and really quite boring) for the adults, and quite sad for the child, who has learnt to do things for praise over joy.

And as Alfie Kohn writes on his blog, “in a troubling study conducted by Joan Grusec at the University of Toronto, young children who were frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they had heard “Good sharing!” or “I’m so proud of you for helping,” they became a little less interested in sharing or helping. Those actions came to be seen not as something valuable in their own right but as something they had to do to get that reaction again from an adult. Generosity became a means to an end.”

So how can we avoid this? Here are three ways:

1. Don’t comment on their merit as a person

Using words like “good” and “bad” imply moral judgement. The fact is, ALL children are good through and through, regardless of what they do. Using words like good (good girl, good job) subtly imply that it was possible not to have been or done something good. And what will they think when can’t preform something? Have they then done a bad job? Are they a bad boy? Of course we know they’re not, but this is a confusing distinction for our children to make.

2. Comment on effort rather than praising achievement

Rather than saying “good job!”, or, “you’re so smart!” or, “you’re such a good artist”, praise the work that went into it.

“Wow, that didn’t look easy!”

“You really had to try hard there!”

“It was challenging at first, but you got it!”

“I love how much consideration you put into making (or doing) this.”

Noticing the effort helps children associate their achievements with hard work. When we skip this step and praise the achievement, we negate the hard work that went into it.

If we constantly say, “Wow, you’re so good at math”, children will make associations in their head like: math = something I’m good at, something that is easy for me. The first time they stumble on a math problem that is difficult, they come into direct conflict with what they believe their experience with math is supposed be (re: easy!). Often, they give up right then and there. They haven’t been equipped to cope with what to do when math (or whatever it is they enjoy doing) is challenging for them. They haven’t been taught that things we love to do can also be hard sometimes.

BUT! If the child has heard things like, “I admire how long you spent working on that”, or, “I can see you thought long and hard”, then they aren’t surprised/disappointed when something they enjoy or are good at takes effort.

3. Thanks and acknowledgement

We can often thank children for their behaviour, rather than praise it. For example, perhaps your child lay still while you were changing his diaper. You can thank them for being patient, and acknowledge how hard it is to lie still.

Objectively acknowledging your child’s movements allows your child to focus on their own good feelings, instead of yours. A common approach is “sports announcing”. For example, “I see you stood up” or “You’re holding the spoon and bringing it to your mouth for the first time”. This affirms what your child has done, without leaving them dependant on that external praise to feel good about it.

I try to use this mindset with Liv, even though she’s just a baby.Whenever I feel excited about a milestone she’s reached, I ask myself, is giving praise right now her need or mine? If she’s deeply concentrated with what she’s doing, I’ll bite my tongue and, as excited as I might feel, I’ll leave her with her work. If it’s the right setting for praise, I might say something like, “that used to be really hard for you, but now it’s easy!” or, “After so much practice, you’re standing on your own!”.

At work, I often get children who want me to watch them do something again and again and again. When this happens, I’ll watch once, and simply offer a small smile and a nod afterwards. It’s rarely the reaction they’re hoping for. Often, they’ll follow up with “Did you see?!?”, eagerly awaiting some form of praise. I simply respond by repeating what they did, “Yes, I saw. You jumped off the swing.” If they continue to ask me to watch, I’ll usually say something along the lines of: ‘Sarah, are you having fun jumping off the swing?” “Yes.” “Great. Then it doesn’t matter if I’m watching or not”. It may sound harsh, but the message is clear: do things because you love to do them, not because I’m watching.

(Sidenote: I am VERY much of the opinion that children who are looking for attention should be given it. However, the type of attention is important. I would make a note of following up with that child at a later time, and finding a way to connect with them. I’m not opposed to giving children attention, or recognizing something they feel proud of, but in the right framework.)

I love the idea of building children up, but there is a fine line between that and being their crutch. I don’t want Liv to look to me to gain her sense of self worth, so I’m mindful of the language I use around her, including (or especially!) as it relates to praise.