The Problem with Praise: From Praising to Observing

Praise seems like a good thing. And we hear it (and maybe do it) all the time but despite what many people believe, praise leads to very negative effects.

Contrary to common belief, children feel more loved and self-assured when we do not intervene in their activities. Not only do they remain secure in our love and support when we refrain from intervening, but they need us to protect them from these intrusions, which can interfere with their progress, self-reliance, and emotional well-being.

Naomi Aldort, Getting Out of the Way

Cheering and evaluating a child can be confusing in variety of ways: A child’s yearning to please her parents is so potent that she can be easily swayed away from her own path in her quest to live up to expectations; Her own sense may be far from your flattery, she may feel disappointed in her creation, embarrassed about her behavior, resentful that she has to do something, or puzzled by the undue fuss and then doubting her own ability to know herself.

Naomi Aldort, The Price of Praise Part 1: Connecting to the Child’s Own Feeling

A father related to me his memory of sitting as a little toddler on the top of a big slide contemplating coming down for the first time. He sat there for a while and then turned on his belly, feet first. The second he took off his parents cheered and clapped. He was still serious when he arrived at the bottom but not anymore due to contemplation but because he concluded that something was seriously wrong with him or else his parents wouldn’t consider it a big deal that he could go down a slide. This conclusion was re-enforced by such repeat praise and stayed with him, limiting him as an adult in many ways.

The question is, what could this man’s parents have done to express their appreciation without contradicting his inner experience? They could have validated the feeling that was already there; contemplation. After he made it down, they could have waited for him to express his self-satisfaction, and if he did, they could have then join his joyful expression without exaggerating or dramatizing it; maybe he would have laughed with delight and they would then laugh with him. Maybe he would have said with a grin on his face,”Did you see me coming down so fast?”and they could have smiled and said, “yes, I saw you sliding fast all the way.” And, if he looked excited, they could have asked, “Are you feeling excited?”And yes, if he didn’t express anything, it would have been best to say nothing. Later they can ask him how he enjoyed himself.

Naomi Aldort, The Price of Praise Part 1: Connecting to the Child’s Own Feeling

When your child expresses his joy with himself or his creation, you can empathize. You do so with words that convey your feelings without evaluation. You don’t try to generate a feeling in your child but to reflect his joy and join his victory. 

Naomi Aldort, The Price of Praise Part 1: Connecting to the Child’s Own Feeling

Problems with Praise

Praise is Manipulative

Using praise to modify behavior means that the child is not choosing to do what we wish, but only acting to please us while her needs are not being met. Such manipulation builds walls between people regardless of the method. Do not attempt to create a feeling and a behavior in another human being, instead, celebrate the way he is by reflecting the feelings that are already there.

Naomi Aldort, The Price of Praise Part 1: Connecting to the Child’s Own Feeling

A child wants to know that we are aware of his success and he wants to have a shared experience of his joy with us. When you praise with the intention to make an impact on your child’s feelings or actions you are maneuvering his emotions, not relating to him. To connect with your son while appreciating him you need to connect with his expressed feelings rather than try to manufacture a feelings in him.

Naomi Aldort, The Price of Praise Part 1: Connecting to the Child’s Own Feeling

There is no difference between the evaluative praise and punishment in terms of being methods of manipulation. The fear of not getting the approval is just as intense as the fear of punishment. As with any manipulation method, the child does things for the wrong reason; to get the praise or avoid it’s absence. The only “benefit” is to the adult who gains temporary control over the child. It is temporary because, being inauthentic, the action or behavior can only exist as long as the approval is dished out.

Naomi Aldort, The Price of Praise Part 1: Connecting to the Child’s Own Feeling

Praise leads to self-doubt, self-denial and inauthenticity

You may think that praise helps a child’s self-esteem because he appears joyous. Yet, he is not happy but only relieved that he has again succeeded to get approval. He is becoming skillful, not at studying, but at living inauthentically. If your son stops studying or achieving something when you don’t praise him, he is evidently not interested in the subject.

Naomi Aldort, The Price of Praise Part 1: Connecting to the Child’s Own Feeling

Praise can be Addictive

Praise is Patronizing

…anytime we give our opinion or judgment (no matter how great) on the behavior or accomplishment of another, we appear as though we are one up, which is the reason it is perceived as patronizing.

Naomi Aldort, The Price of Praise Part 2: Expressing Appreciation
  • Praise encourages children to do things to please others; to rely on extrinsic motivation instead of intrinsic motivation.

What to Do Instead

Show Gratitude

When a child serves your needs she does not want evaluation; she wishes to know that it served you, and would enjoy knowing how you feel about it. The relevant response to the service is gratitude…

…children want to know that your needs were met when they are being considerate. Praise words like, “You were so nice to stay quiet while I slept,” provide evaluation, not gratitude. What the children want to know is: Did you benefit from the their effort? How are you feeling about it? In the case of your afternoon nap you can say, “I feel refreshed and am grateful that it was quiet in the house. Thank you.”

Naomi Aldort, The Price of Praise Part 2: Expressing Appreciation

Provide Feedback (but Only If and When Requested)

As a parent, give feedback only when you are asked to and only precisely what you have been asked. Adding a “lesson” will, most likely, generate annoyance, as it is not respectful. If your child does not know yet to request feedback and he asks you, “was it good Dad,” you can acknowledge, “I feel confused because I don’t know what you wish to hear.” Ask for direction, “Can you tell me precisely what you need? Would you like me to tell you if your legs were straight?” “Shall I time your run?” “Would you like me to tell you if any notes are out of tune or if your bow is strait?” Once you receive a precise instruction, you can provide feedback. To a dancer, “Yes, your legs where straight twice and the back one was bent on the third leap.” 

Naomi Aldort, The Price of Praise Part 2: Expressing Appreciation

If this Seems Hard…

While you may feel overwhelmed and wishing that you could be more spontaneous, realize that what feels to you like your “real self” is more likely to be a set of habits. While changing such habits, the intention of the heart is by far more important than the perfect wording.

Naomi Aldort, The Price of Praise Part 2: Expressing Appreciation

Recommended Articles

Header Image Credits — David Brooke Martin