In praise of praising

Alfie Kohn, speaking in Ottawa in 2010. Image: M. Gifford, read an article in which the author says, basically, most praise is bad.

It stayed with me, because:

1) I know that as a parent I probably do praise too much; and

2) he’s probably right; and

3) I’m not going to stop praising my son.

Alfie Kohn is a renowned education expert and he’s looked at a lot of research. I believe that he knows what he’s talking about.

I also believe that I disagree with him.

But you may not. Or, like me, you may choose to take some of what he says and discard the rest and that’s OK too.

Here’s why he says praising isn’t a good idea

Every time we say, “Good job!” to a child we’re just getting them to comply to our wishes—when we’re around. It does nothing to motivate them to positive behaviour when we’re not there to say “good job.”

We’re creating “praise junkies.” Kids who are told they’re doing a “good job” every time they clap or eat neatly will grow into adults who need constant external validation.

We steal their pleasure. By saying “good job,” we’re telling the child how to feel about their accomplishment; it’s just as much an evaluation as “bad job!” he says.

Diminishing their interest. Studies show that kids who are frequently praised ultimately end up feeling less like doing the thing they were praised for.

Undermining achievement. Praised kids become less likely to take risks once they start focusing on how to keep the positive comments coming, than on the task at hand.

He says that based on this evidence, it’s clear that most parents praise more because “they want to say it than because children need to hear it.”

I’d like to suggest a compromise

Have you ever intellectually understood something while at the same time your gut is saying, “this just ain’t right for me.” That’s how I’m feeling about all of this.

Yes, I can see how empty words—of any kind, and not just praise—become like background noise to a child. Empty calories the child begins to crave without getting any nutritional benefit.

But I’m suggesting a compromise (praising, but doing it thoughtfully), and here are my reasons:

1) It feels unnatural to me, to hold back praise when I’m really stoked about something my kid has done. As I’ve learned time and again, when I’m parenting “according to a book,” it backfires. Onto my kid, usually.

2) How many times during our childhoods (yours, mine) did we do something we thought was great, only to have our accomplishment completely ignored. Did that take the wind out of our sails? You bet it did. How I would have loved to have even a casually tossed off, “good job!” then. At least it would have shown that someone was watching.

3) Alfie Kohn is making the assumption that if we don’t praise we will instead have a thoughtful, intensive discussion with our child about his accomplishment—that we’ll be able to take the time we’ve saved by not praising and use it for quality parenting. Well maybe, but we might also just miss the opportunity altogether and, say, fold the laundry.

4) Intent is really what’s being looked at, here. (And Kohn acknowledges this in his essay.) If you’re genuinely thrilled by what your child has done and you blurt out, “good job!” I don’t think the child is going to get a mixed message. But if you’re just going through the motions, tossing out, “good job”s like so many shillings to urchins then your kid is going to wonder why what he’s hearing isn’t making him feel better.

I’m going to think more about this. It’s obviously an Achilles heel of mine or I wouldn’t be so bothered about it. Or confused. In the meantime, Kohn says there are things we should do to replace praising so much.

1) Say nothing.

2) Say what you saw (“You drew some mountains!”)

3) Talk less, ask more.

Do check out his essay for more insight. And while you’re at it, check out his other interesting thoughts on parenting and education on his website. And then, because I can’t get the song out of my head, why not check out the movie Alfie.

(Resisting, resisting, resisting the temptation to end this post with, “Good job, Alfie!”)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *