Praise Junkies Beware

Blanketing children with praise, seems like a natural step toward building independent, confident kids.  But praise may actually produce results in our children that are opposite our intentions, according to an article in New York Magazine (How Not to Talk to Your Kids).

According to the article, praising children based on intelligence (“You are so smart“) implies innate ability separate from effort or progress.  Some of the studies cited in the article found that children who were praised in this manner were more likely to be risk-averse.  Seeing their “smartness” as a definition of who they were, a characteristic they had little control over, they had a stronger desire to preserve that image of “smartness”, than to put it to the test with a challenge.  They were eager to display competence, rather than to learn something new.

Conversely, children who were encouraged with comments about their effort, their tenacity, or their focus were more likely to recognize the skills that they had put to use and were apt to take on more challenges and apply those skills again. 

The article further examines praise addiction, the interplay of self-esteem and praise, as well as the efficacy of directly teaching kids to take on challenges in education.

I would strongly recommend the article to parents and teachers, and feel it gives some interesting and applicable research-based information.  For those left worried about how to appropriately encourage positive behavior without turning their kids (or themselves) into praise junkies, here are a few guidelines:

Make it specific and sincere.   Kids can spot generic, hollow praise.  Whenever you catch yourself using a generic form of praise (“Good job!”) think of it as a buzzer, reminding you to add a more specific description (“You really worked hard at that puzzle and didn’t quit, even when it was hard!”). 

Describe an action.  Overemphasizing qualities gives children the message that they have little control over this trait.  They are either smart or not, they are kind or not.  Describing the action helps them to know how to repeat the behavior and reinforces the aspect of choice in their behavior.  (“Thank you for showing good listening by sitting with your eyes on me, your bodies still, and your mouths quiet!” vs. “Thanks for being so good!”)  Think less in terms of praise and more in terms of encouragement.  What skills and actions do you want to encourage?  Describe them with action words.  These words act as cues to the child’s brain.

Recognize effort .   Focusing too much on the end product becomes judgement rather than encouragement.  Recognizing the effort someone is putting into things, the amount of time they really engage, or the way they rebound from set-backs helps to promote resiliency and work ethic rather than generating stress based on outcomes they may not be able to control (ie winning a prize or competition).  As the article mentions, children who were wrapped up in outcome-based praise were more likely to cheat than those who were buoyed up by process-based encouragement, which makes sense if you consider that the emphasis is on what they accomplish, not on how they got there.  This doesn’t mean we should dole out watered-down praise for half-hearted effort (see point #1), but we should recognize true effort and hard work, even when it doesn’t produce the “win”.

Get their input.   Praise often fills a natural need for external approval, but it sometimes creates an addiction to people-pleasing.  In an attempt to feed a positive self-concept, we unintentionally create a self-concept that is predicated on the opinions of others.  Instead of always projecting your own perceptions, ask children what they think of their effort, of their work, or of their behavior.  Sometimes you’d be surprised at what you can both learn from their introspection. 

Some things are unconditional.   It’s easy to become a praise-junkie when we are simply trying to create a positive atmosphere and help kids to recognize how wonderful we think they are.  We want to build up their positive self-image and steady them against those hard days in life.  But instead of over-doing the messages of praise, we can build that self-esteem and security by giving them messages of love that are not conditional upon their labels.  Let them know that you love them not because they are “smart”, but because they are yours. 

What do you think?  How do you focus on encouragement rather than praise with the children you love and teach?  How do you encourage them to do their best, yet reinforce that your love is not a performance-based reward?

Top photo by Christie Merrill.

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27 responses to “Praise Junkies Beware

  1. Ana

    One I heard recently that I really like is, “It seems like this is getting easier for you.” I think it helps kids recognize that they are making progress as they practice.

    A lot of times I also say, “You did it! How do you feel?” Invariably the response is “good” or “Great!” Lets the good feelings come from inside, not outside.

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  3. It is a hard line to walk, in the classroom and at home. We want our kids to be proud of themselves but we don’t want them plagued with a sense of entitlement or superiority. These are excellent tips and the post is a reminder that too much of anything is usually bad. Thanks for sharing.

    • notjustcute

      It is a fine line. We don’t want to create “praise junkies”, but it isn’t as though they’ll be damaged by hearing “good job” now and then. Little tweaks like being specific and encouraging introspection help keep that balance. Thanks for reading and commenting, Jeri!

  4. Jodi

    The book “Nurture Shock” has a chapter about this too. It’s a great book for parents!

  5. Yep – loved this chapter in Nurture Shock! I’ve been trying to explain it to the Grandparents and they kinda look at me like I’m nuts. We do a lot of “I like how you are…” and try to really praise the effort – especially when out 2 year old sticks with something, “I like how you kept trying to figure that out, that was hard!”

  6. This is a wonderful article. We boomers started all this praise stuff – we wanted to feel good about ourselves. Self-esteem became our god. However, praising kids to the limit, no matter what they do or produce, doesn’t help them in the long run. How long are they are to feel good about themselves when they get out in the real world and can’t produce? I do believe in praising kids for a job well done and for putting in some effort, but if kids come to me and it’s obvious they haven’t practiced a lick or read instructions before doing their theory lessons, I don’t praise them for just having walked into the door of my studio. It would be a lie, and they would know it.

  7. Joanna

    Since reading Nurture Shock this has stressed me out! I soooo want to encourage my children and to do so properly. What a responsibility!

    • notjustcute

      Jodi, Steph, and Joanna- I officially need to read Nurture Shock now. I’ve heard a lot about it and even came *this close* to buying it the other day. It’s now in my queue!

  8. What a great article! I am struggling to assist my husband in understanding this concept. He throws out “Good Job” to our toddler like it is going out of style. Drives me nuts and he gets ultra defensive when I gently try to guide him in a better direction. I just get so frustrated with overpraising, insincere praise, and praise just for something to say. I LOVE the book Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn which discusses the overuse of praise and the dangers of praise in general. I read it before my daughter was born and luckily have my own mother on board with alternative forms of positive behavior recognition. I will admit that the praise habit is a tough one to break as our society has been haphazardly guided into offering praise and expecting praise for darn near everything! A mouse breaks wind in Egypt and we are all expected to say “great job mouse!” Ok – not literally, but sometimes that is how liberal praise is thrown around. I am printing this post out for my husband. Maybe he will pay attention to it since it isn’t my voice in his ear or a book on a table that will never get read. Can you tell how much I love this post????? Thank you again!


  9. Pam

    This is great! and so true!

  10. Wolf Pascoe

    Three cheers for Alfie Kohn, who also has things to say about rewards and punishment (avoid both.) What’s hard about avoiding mindless praise is the need to offer mindful feedback in its place. It means paying attention amid a world of distraction.

  11. I remember the first time I read that article – it turned my world upside down a little bit! I would sit and watch one of my daughters coloring and say, “Good job!” I had NO IDEA how much I said, “Good job!” until I started trying to eliminate it.

    You have to be really, really mindful to focus on the efforts OR to not say anything at all. Just let them be. That was the hardest for me.

    These days, I try to limit positive feedback so it will be more meaningful. With my six year old who is in a really great place right now, I’ll say, “Hey, you got your pajamas on the first time I asked. I really appreciate that!” *high five*

    With my three year old who is going through a REALLY rough spot, I tend to use more positive feedback because there is a LOT of correcting going on during the day. I have to be mindful to keep it in balance, so for this season, she gets a lot more “atta girls” – but once we work through the rough spot, I’ll dial back the praising again.

    Great article, Amanda. I think we all need to be more aware of this!

  12. I really think this is a great message for parents and teachers. It was hard, when I was a teacher, not to get into the habit of saying, “good job.” I really had to work on finding encouraging words so I wouldn’t be a praise junkie. I think parents these days don’t want to repeat their parents mistakes so they continuously praise their children, even for nothing. I see an up and coming generation who are going to have a difficult time in the real world because we are constantly telling them how wonderful and smart they are, but that’s not going to happen when they get out on their own. If we don’t change the way we encourage our kids, this next generation is going to struggle with not being wonderful and “the smartest” when they have to fend for themselves.

  13. I was so glad to find this article on your site. In recent years, I’ve been thinking a lot about how those who show musical ability or artistic ability often are fearful of taking risks and end up feeling like failures at some point in their lives. I think any creative person can fall into this trap. Like the kids in the article, those praised for their natural talent often never learn to work through failure…and will do whatever it takes to avoid it. They might excel at something early in life, but are later passed up by those who understand how to overcome obstacles. I think I fell into this trap, but have tried hard as an adult to see success in attempting difficult things, even when that means failing. Thank you for posting this article – so many of us needed this!

  14. Joan

    I loved learning about this back in school and told myself that I would work hard to be specific with my children when praising or encouraging. How quickly we (or at least I) forget! I loved reading this post! It feels refreshing and is such a great reminder. Thank you!

  15. Eye-opening article! The studies are so interesting. I’ve observed this behavior in my classmates, particularly transitioning from jr. high to high school. From my schooling experience, I struggled academically in elementary school and caught up in jr. high. I always wanted to be in the “smart” group in high school (although I was in National Jr. Honor Society, National Academic League and National Honor Society, so I was among them.) But never being labeled “smart” actually helped me. Through high school and college, I studied hard and asked for help when needed. I had a high standard for myself (B or better) that I always met, but I had a little wiggle room and didn’t need to have a 4.0 cum GPA to feel achievement.

    It seems my observations are spot on. I have always said, before I was a mom, that I’d rather have my daughter (or son) struggle in elementary school than excel from the beginning because it will teach her (or him) how to study, rather than sailing through than struggling “when it counts” in high school or college. This article makes sense, yet it seems so radical!!

  16. Thank you for sending this article.
    I think the information is “spot on”. We educators and parents of young children freely say, “You’re so smart” or “Great Job” like we are answering a yes or no question. Children need to fail to build resiliency,and have problems to learn how to solve them. We owe it to our children to give specific praise vs. across the board praise. Perfection does not exist. You can not ever be too intelligent; but you can be jaded.

  17. L2L

    I would have to agree that we praise our kids too much and God too little.

  18. Heather

    I just discovered your blog, and love this post. So hard to break from being a praise junkie, isn’t it? I just have to add that I discovered sometime in college that I really struggle with too direct of praise. I was a music major, and I can remember a couple of specific situations where I was told that I played a certain passage “with such maturity” or “so perfectly”. I think the praise had the opposite effect with which it was given; I felt terrified that I would never play it that good again and then they would be disappointed. Typically I recovered in a day or two, but I always regretted their words. I have even noticed in my full-time office work my dislike for direct praise–it makes me feel so uncomfortable and fearful of not living up to their expectations. And sometimes it feels like a lie (even when I know the person well enough to know that they’re being sincere). My point, I guess, is that this is an adult issue as much as a child issue (at least for me–maybe emotionally I’m still approaching adolescence).

  19. Amanda – another great, thought provoking and really important post. Thanks for the link to that article. It’s such a hard idea to get across to people as it seems so counter-intuitive – but then a parent of a teenager will say something like “They won’t do anything just to help” or “they won’t have a go” and at this point it’s so hard to change things. I loved all the comments too – I hadn’t heard of “Nurture Shock” – I’ll have to google it. I also want to follow up Carol Dweck’s Mindset book as she seems to be talking about this sort of thing – and you may know of Marvin Marshall and his Discipline without Rewards and Punishment approach – really all aspects of the need to be authentic with kids and with ourselves. Thanks again! 🙂

  20. memarie lane

    I can attest to the truth of this. I grew up being told how brilliant I was, so I always felt my brilliance must trump any insignificant detail like homework or clarinet practice. As a result I was an okay student and mediocre musician with a boat load of lost potential.

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