If you feel praising a child is helping them feel good about themselves, think again. Praise can be the contaminated carrot, with a stick at the other end. By Shyla Sreedharan
“Great job!” “Well done!” “Smart boy!” “Good girl!”
Walk into any learning environment with young people and you will invariably hear these glib expressions of praise generously endowed upon children by well-meaning educators, tutors and parents alike. Self-help books in the parenting section of libraries and bookstores expound the virtues of praise to boost a child’s self-esteem, reinforce good behaviour and shape personality. For many children however, praise can be too prematurely interpreted as love and acceptance, and the teacher- and parent-pleasing child may grow up into the emotionally exhausted adult addicted to a steady staple of approval and external validation in order to function.
“When someone abuses me I can defend myself,
but against praise I am defenseless.”
Praise has its dark side and we need to revisit and recalibrate this deeply programmed facet of our parenting philosophy. Alfie Kohn, author of Punished By Rewards, has shown through his extensive research, why praise and punishment are two sides of the same coin — a judgment that parents may unwittingly end up using to control and manipulate their child’s future behaviour.
Many parents genuinely believe that it is the warm feeling they get from “making their child happy” that encourages them to continue to heap on the praise — that kind of response can feel good for a while, but that power to make our children happy is not rightfully ours to have, they need to do it for themselves.
This does not mean that all compliments and expressions of delight are damaging. We simply need to consider our motives for what we say when we praise, as well as the actual effects they have on our children when we do so. Are our reactions helping the child to feel a sense of control over her life — or to constantly look to us for approval? Does praise motivate children intrinsically to become more excited about learning in its own right — or transform it into something they just want to complete to receive a pat on the back?