What’s Wrong With Praise?

In my heart, I don’t think a little praise is going to kill anyone or ruin their characters forever, but I do believe it is a poor habit to practice, and that parents should resist it as much as possible. I have two very practical reasons for recommending encouragement over praise: first, it’s much less work, and second, it encourages independence. That’s a win/win if ever I heard of one.

I won’t present the arguments of my betters on this subject; it is well documented in parental and psychological publications. They certainly express the technical reasons behind the practice much better than I can. As a parent and friend of many children, I can testify that encouragement is a better practical approach.

Here’s my experience: When new in the mom business, I did sometimes fall into praise. It was easy. I did think my children were wonderful. However, I soon discovered that praise was at its essence, a judgment, and it seemed a distraction. If my son was coloring and I stopped by and said, “That looks great!” he would be happy. Then he would stop coloring every few minutes for more praise, as I chastised myself for distracting him and losing time I could have applied to the myriad of tasks about the home.

I read Positive Parenting, Parent Effectiveness Training, and How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, among about a million other parenting books. (In passing, I will say that my favorite book on the birth experience and recovery is Fritzi Kallop’s Birth Book by Fritzi Kallop; I’m not sure you can find it anymore, but it was funny and practical and useful.  I didn’t like the oh-so-popular What to Expect series one bit, though I know it sold millions, so maybe I was the only one who didn’t fall in love with it.)  And I took a class in applying positive parenting techniques.  None of this makes me an expert, but I never let that prevent me from sharing . . . lucky you!

As I taught myself the techniques of encouragement, I found that it satisfied both the children and me, and prohibited passing judgment. They were happy to be acknowledged, and I was happy that my comments did not distract them. Oh, yeah, I was also happy to be telling the truth.

I am big on telling the truth, particularly to children. I have never lied to my children even about little things. I know many parents who routinely lie to their children and I do not believe they are bad people. However, I think it a poor practice to lie at all, and an exceptionally poor one to lie to your own children who we very much want to trust us.  

Most of the lies would probably be considered “white” by many people. I could see them being thought of as lies of convenience. I many times heard moms say, “there’s no more left,” when there were more cookies in the bag but it was less likely to lead to a fight if the coveted object were thought gone rather than denied. I have heard moms tell children that certain places of amusement such as the despised Chuck E Cheese, were closed or out of business rather than say they were not to be taken there. In my presence, moms have told children that local pizza places were closed when I knew well they were open.

I am always uncomfortable in the obvious presence of such lies. Often the parents in question would whisper an explanation to me after the untrue comment such as, “I want to avoid a tantrum” or “she won’t stop asking unless she knows there’s no point,” which I felt indicated that they knew they should be telling the truth.

So, when my children created art that they entirely enjoyed making, but that by any objective analysis could not be considered attractive, I was thrilled to be able to say “You made a snowman!” rather than lie and say the execution of said project was fabulous. For physical accomplishments, I was armed with encouragement such as “You’re learning to dive!” rather than, “You are so good at diving that the Olympic team will be recruiting you any minute!”

With my encouragement, my children were happy and usually wanted to continue the activity that had elicited the encouragement.  Never once did they ask why I didn’t praise them. So as to my first point that encouragement leads to more of the activity, I saw constant evidence of this and think you will also.

I have often and loudly opined that the primary goal of parenting, after keeping the children alive to adulthood, is to teach them independence. Encouragement is the road to independence; praise is entirely dependent.

If you think of it for a minute, you realize it is irrefutable. Praise emanates from another person; you need that second person to issue the praise. Children who grow up on praise need that approval of praise constantly around them. There are many studies that support this. Once you begin praising, your children expect it all the time and learn to depend on it; their drawings are not valuable unless you say they are beautiful; their grades are not fulfilling unless you say they are wonderful; their dance is not worthwhile until you say it is perfect.

Besides inculcating dependence, other studies have shown that children uncover the untruthfulness of praise pretty quickly. All you are trying to do is make your children happy with praise, but as time passes and they are bombarded with superlatives, they begin to distrust it. They observe the superior accomplishments and execution of their peers and realize that, though you say they write as well as Shakespeare, they are getting lower grades than some of their fellow students. Though you insist that Rembrandt takes a back seat to them, they notice that other students are invited to create art for school publications, and they are passed over. It is never good to have your children distrust you or your judgment.

Well, you argue, you need a second person to pronounce the encouragement I am selling so hard as well.  It makes sense, but oddly, encouragement doesn’t seem to work that way. I am not the expert here; just a mom who had success with this approach. However, studies show that children who hear encouragement learn to encourage themselves.

This seems almost as mysterious as television to me, but I will explain my understanding of the process.  You encourage your children when they are young.  They feel pleased that you notice that they are coloring, jumping, reading, or feeding the cat.  Rather than waiting for encouragement for every activity, they internalize the encouraging statements and associate them with the activities rather than with mom or dad.

I have continued to use encouragement as my children have aged and found it just as powerful as when then were building Lego houses.  Today’s encouragement may sound more like “You’re investing a lot of time in your studies” or “You’re really job-hunting!” or even “I see you are taking time with your appearance and expanding the kinds of styles you wear . . . is this part of a plan or are you experimenting or what?” This encouragement does not judge; it observes and engages and never lies.

I hear you. You’re saying that mom and dad are not the only people who have contact with your children. Grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches and tutors of all kinds will feature in your children’s personal interaction; many of them will use praise with reckless abandon. You can’t train everyone how to encourage in lieu of praise and you can’t put your hands over your children’s ears so they don’t hear the praise, so why bother avoiding praise at home?

Because you are the parents. As parents, we have unique roles in the lives of our children. It may seem difficult to discern some days, but a parent’s influence is supreme. Children who hear how wonderful they are from their grandparents, don’t then wonder why their own parents don’t praise them as well. Children who hear coaches say that they saved the game with their unparalleled skill, still react positively to parents who say “You worked hard all the way to the end of that game!”  The praise of others does please them, but parental encouragement seems to trump praise.

What have you got to lose? Try working some encouragement into your act. Observe the effect is has. Keep in mind that encouragement is not a spell that takes effect as soon as you utter the magic words, but a learning process. You have the confidence of knowing that encouragement cannot damage your child or any children as praise has the potential to do.