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…?
Praise 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.”
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.
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.
For information about R.I.E., call 323 663-5330 or visit www.rie.org.
About Marcy Axness
I’m the author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers, and also the adoption expert on Mothering’s expert panel. I write and speak around the world on prenatal, child and parent development, and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my new book I’m delighted to be speaking at many wonderful conferences all over the world in the coming months, and I’m happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on Mothering.com! As a special gift to Mothering readers I’m offering “A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool.”