Does Praising Children Build Self-Esteem?

Somewhere along the way it became generally assumed that praise builds self-esteem, leading to the daily parental litany of “Nice job!” and “Great throw!” and “Gorgeous painting!” and on and on ad nauseum. Pundits call it “affirmation” and “positive feedback.” B.F. Skinner called it “positive reinforcement.” Does praising children really build their self-esteem, as many people assume it does? Or does it erode their intrinsic motivation, pleasure and self-satisfaction?


The gift-giving holidays are fast approaching and if it doesn’t happen to you this year it will happen to you soon: your precious child will present you with a handmade present, some unique form of artistic expression. And you won’t care if the colors clash, if the popsicle sticks aren’t straight, if the pasta is coming unglued; your heart will expand, almost painfully, with a gush of love and tenderness unique to the moment. These truly are the most precious gifts! And this is one instance where unbridled praise fits the bill. But what about every other day…?


Build Self-EsteemPraise is a dicey proposition. If it came in a bottle it would require a label:  Please note all possible side effects before administering to your child. Years ago our R.I.E. teacher proposed to us the counterintuitive (and definitely counter-cultural) notion that praise — especially the kind that is routinely doled out to kids — can insidiously erode a child’s intrinsic motivation, pleasure, and self-satisfaction in a given task or activity.


Indeed, praise deflects a child’s focus away from her inner will to create, play and do, outward to our response to what she creates, plays and does. In his book Punished by Rewards Alfie Kohn points out that praise “sustains a dependence on our evaluations, our decisions about what is good and bad, rather than helping them begin to form their own judgments. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and offer the positive words they crave.”


Self-Esteem is an Inside Job

Their natural intrinsic motivation, delight, and sense of just-rightness wear away, and they become dependent on the illusory glow of pseudo-self-esteem coming from outside in. One of the most helpful things I ever heard Dr. Laura say on her radio show was that self-esteem is about whether you impress yourself through how you act. Or as the saying goes, “Self-esteem is an inside job.”


One morning many years ago, our two-year-old Eve called to me, “Come look, Mama!,” and when she let me open my eyes, there was her new puzzle, all put together. Rather than the standard, “Great job!” or “I’m so proud of you!”, I responded with “You finished that puzzle all by yourself.” I simply reflected what was so, with no judgment attached (except my big smile). My gratifying reward was Eve’s comment back to me: “I smart!”


Expressions of self-esteem don’t get more vivid or authentic than that.  But the self-esteem and pride were Eve’s, given by herself to herself, and were based on her own appraisal of her own accomplishment. I had merely been an enthusiastic witness, and indeed, one of the most profound needs of the child is to be seen.


The Art of Seeing Rather than Praising Children

I shared my new insights with my husband, and he tried to bite his tongue before making comments like “I really like your painting, Ian.” He and I would joke over the sometimes-unnatural approaches suggested as alternatives to praise, such as “I notice you’ve used a lot of blue in your painting.” Meanwhile, I tried to use this new awareness to fashion ways of responding to our children that were both respectful and authentic.


I learned to make comments of encouragement and acknowledgment rather than to praise, but then read an article by in Mothering magazine that strongly discouraged those too!  Author Naomi Aldort wrote, “Sensitive and smart, [our children] perceive that we have an agenda, that we are manipulating them toward some preferred or ‘improved’ end result.  . . . Gradually, a shift occurs.  . . . No longer do they trust in their actions, and no longer do they trust us, for we are not really on their side.”


So what about simply offering encouragement or demonstrating loving support by commenting on what a child is making, or drawing, or playing with? Aldort says, “Even when we intervene with casual commentary on our children’s imaginative play, doubts sneak in. What children are experiencing inwardly at these times is often so remote from our ‘educated’ guesses that bewilderment soon turns to self-denial and self-doubt.”


So what do we do?? We can bring awareness to our comments, and ask ourselves if what we say helps our child become more deeply involved in what he is doing, or if it (even subtly) turns the task or behavior into something he does to win our approval. This doesn’t mean we never say anything, or become unresponsive! The young child deeply needs to feel our mental and emotion embrace, and recognition of what they’re doing. They also crave authority, guidance, and protection from having to make final determinations of what is right.


There is a way to avoid the pitfalls of praise while also meeting the needs of the young child for the adult’s input, and it is a wonderful art for parents to cultivate. For example, as little Sarah is cutting carrots with her mother for the stew, Mom might comment from the point of view of the carrot! “That is just the way the carrots like to be cut up,” is a more nourishing response than the more standard “I like how you cut up those carrots.”


Build Self-Esteem

Another alternative, suggests Whole Child/Whole Parent  author Polly Berrien Berends, is to offer celebration in place of praise:


“Enthusiasm, love, gratitude!  ‘How happy that looks!’  we can say. ‘You must be so glad to see it turn out that way!  Thank you for showing me.’  To the child, shared discovery and appreciation of what is beautiful is worth ten times more than personal praise and actually furthers creative growth where praise stunts it.”


Why the Constant Comment?

I began to wonder why we as parents feel this need, this near-compulsion, to constantly comment.  Why do we have to say anything at all? The reasons for this are many. One is that nowhere in our society is something allowed to simply be, without commentary, blurbs, hype, or headlines. Never has this been truer than in today’s iTwitterFaceLinkInPod culture.


Alfie Kohn’s extensively researched and now classic book Punished By Rewards dissects the problems connected to praise, incentives, and even grades. Kohn highlights a basic but rarely noticed fact about praise: “… the most notable aspect of a positive judgment is not that it is positive but that it is a judgment. Just as every carrot contains a stick, so every verbal reward contains within it the seed of a verbal punishment.” Kohn points out:


Praise, at least as commonly practiced, is a way of using and perpetuating children’s dependence on us. It sustains a dependence on our evaluations, our decisions about what is good and bad, rather than helping them begin to form their own judgments.  It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and offer the positive words they crave.


We now have a generation of young adults whose addiction to the constant flow of external rewards and positive feedback has become an issue for employers. There are even companies who specialize in providing flashy workplace demonstrations of praise and acknowledgement for employees whose motivation and morale sags without such external bolstering! This is not a dependence that we want for Generation Peace; rather, we want them to feel an abiding sense of rightness, worthiness and “enoughness” from deep within.


Modeling Self-Esteem

Children learn and develop by imitating adults around them. They absorb and replicate our ways of moving and speaking and our very ways of perceiving and thinking about ourselves and the world. The most effective way to help our children develop a positive self-concept and a healthy attitude toward praise is to cultivate these attributes in ourselves. Our children are always watching. They download us!


And as they grow into young adults, we want them to be able to respect and value the opinions of others and be able to accept and enjoy sincere praise for their accomplishments. But we also want them to be full of positive feelings for themselves, able to celebrate their own ability to do something well, and calmly aware that the ultimate arbiter of their achievements lies within them.



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6 thoughts on “Does Praising Children Build Self-Esteem?”

  1. Yes I agree, too much praise can be patronising. I think of this in terms of my relationships with my friends – if they were commenting positively on my behaviour I’d be wondering why – what’s wrong. One of the books that influenced me the most when my kids were little – Your child’s self esteem by Dorothy Briggs. In this she talked about the importance of recognising and responding to feelings in your child. There are surface and underlying feelings, and that when you recognise one the other has the chance of surfacing. I saw this very thing happen with my young boy – something was happening and I said – are you feeling so and so … and then a deeper, angerier feeling came out – really interesting. This book was a revelation for me as I wouldn’t have scored myself highly on emotional intelligence but I found myself stopping in my tracks more than once and responding in quite a different way to how I would have otherwise. Looking back I’m glad and I’m still learning.

  2. Wonderful article! I’ve read about this concept before, but never did it make as much sense! I’m glad that my natural instinct as a mom has always been to stay away from the child playing beautifully alone (or with other kids) or even when he’s proud of himself cutting up those carrots. “thank you” and a kiss is usually most I do. But I did have to practice not praising their artwork, and went with “thanks for giving it to me” and a big kiss with that one. By shutting my own mouth, as hard as it was first, I discovered how beautiful it can be to watch a child be tinkling proud explaining what a wondrous imaginary world he was able to draw. While my first son’s drawings really are great work, I’m glad I learned not to praise before my second one finally draw anything in the resemblance of anything. Because he is not that great a drawer, (and who am i to say? maybe he has abstract style!!!) I would have felt that I HAVE to praise him as much as his brother and maybe the kid could detect a fraud when I would praise the 4 circles that are supposed to be our family. Now instead of me speaking up, I can enjoy the same exact joy and wonder in this kid, because he just created something he sees as a wondrous world of imagination. I love how this article brought up the fact that positive judgement is still judgement. I think this non-praise practice has teached me not to judge, in any direction. Because now I can tell myself not to freak out that my second son is probably not artistic, instead I watch him love his work and tell me about the wonderful things that I can’t see there but he can.. and I’m like: ‘wow this kid has amazing imagination!”, “he is in some imaginary forest right now with these random penlines!” And I don’t have to say anything, just be there, and the self-satisfaction, pleasure and intrinsic motivation is working on it’s own.
    I even doubt myself already, and am curious to see… what if the guy who I thought doesn’t know how to draw becomes and artist because I always gave him the freedom to draw for himself from his imagination.

  3. Thank you, tittipeitto, for giving such rich examples of your own evolution in this area. It is tough, isn’t it?!! But the rewards are rich. What I didn’t mention in the article is that I find it really interesting that both of my children (both kids of a “praise-free” home) grew up to be gifted, confident artists: my son a musician, my daughter a painter/sculptor.

    And joanie44, I love that added perspective of how it would be from *our* perspective, as adults. That’s so helpful! Yes, that is indeed a classic book by Dorothy Briggs — one of the early ones I myself read as a parent. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Excellent article; thank you! I’ve been a big fan of Alfie Kohn for years and you’ve described this approach with clarity and humility. In my work with adult clients, I see an obsessive need for approval from others, which clearly comes from the dependence created by teachers and parents. Do you really think it’s possible to create a praise-free home?

  5. Thanks, Sheryl. “Praise-free” is a bit on the absolute side for me (along with the words “never” and “always” and the like)…but I’ll tell you, our home came very close. And this was with two budding artists (and maybe partly WHY they really fully budded as artists). I think it just helps to stay with “what is” — “That is a really difficult piece and wow, have you worked hard on it over these weeks…I’ve really enjoyed listening to your progress…” as one example. It does ask more of us, that is for sure. Praise can be the “easy way out.”

    But as I often write and say in presentations, it is our *striving* and not our perfection that nourishes & teaches our children.

  6. Thank you, Marcy. I’m curious why you say that they never fully budded. My boys are 8 and almost 4 and I can see, especially with the younger one, how intense the dependence on praise can be. They’re both highly creative and curious and the last thing I want to do is stifle that natural energy in any way! Did you homeschool your kids?

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