To praise or not to praise

Is praise good or bad for children?

The definition of praise, according to the Merriam-Webster American Dictionary is “to express a favorable judgment of; to glorify (a God or saint) especially by the attribution of perfections, commend.” Michigan State University Extension looks at two different research views on praising children.

Recently the practice of praising children has come under fire by some researchers. In a 2001 article published in Young Children, Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards and Unconditional Parenting states that there are at least five good reasons why praising children by just saying “Good job!” is bad.

  1. It is manipulative – Takes advantage of a child’s dependence on us, especially if we only say it when they do something that benefits us, like pick up their toys.
  2. It creates praise junkies – Children become dependent on our evaluations rather than learning to make their own.
  3. It steals a child’s pleasure – By telling them how they should feel.
  4. It can lead to children losing interest in experiences – Since they are motivated only by getting more praise and not focusing on the activity itself.
  5. It can lead to reducing achievement – By discouraging independence, enjoyment and interest in activities that are only seen and measured by adults.

In contrast to Kohn’s theory, there are decades of research that maintains that specific and genuine encouragement and praise is critical to meeting the needs of children who do not fall into the category of typical development. According to Carolyn Webster Stratton, author of The Incredible Years, children with developmental delays, attention or other behavioral problems are not typically reinforcing to adults and therefore tend to draw more criticism than praise. In these cases adults need to intentionally work to encourage and support a child’s positive efforts in order to help them learn critical social and emotional skills.

In her book, Incredible Teachers: Nurturing Children’s Social, Emotional, and Academic Competence (2012), Webster-Stratton points to research that clearly shows without intentional, responsive and nurturing interventions, disruptive behaviors of students with behavior problems, continue to escalate and impede academic and social growth of all children. In addition, children in classrooms with teachers who use the Incredible Years strategies, including coaching, encouragement and praise, were significantly less aggressive with peers, more on task and more cooperative.

In conclusion, before you consider not praising children at all, look to the research and make an informed decision. Consider what is best for your own child or children in your care. The consequences could have an impact on a child’s success in school and in life. For more information on this and other topics, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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