Do children need praise, or is it counterproductive?

02 Oct

This question was asked on a Quora forum that I subscribe to. Since this is an area where I’ve done quite a bit of literature review I decided to answer.

It’s VERY important to differentiate between “praise” and encouragement/positive recognition. At first this sounds kind of like a silly thing to gripe about, but I’ve come to believe it is true. I’ve also seen it work like magic with my own boys. Alfred Adler taught this years ago, and recent research by Carol Dweck Ph.D. (Stanford) has proven it again. Praise is indeed counterproductive. Encouragement, on the other hand, is essential. I’ll tell you the reasoning behind it, and you can make up your own mind.

For those who care, I’m an Adlerian psychologist and use Rudolf Dreikurs’ child guidance work as a foundation. Dreikurs taught, “A child needs encouragement like a plant needs water.” In other words, encouragement is essential. Children may not die without encouragement, but they certainly wither.

However, praise can be counterproductive, because kids become approval junkies. They do stuff to get the buzz from the praise rather than for the intrinsic motivation of doing something well and being proud of themselves for their effort. Additionally, if they DON’T get praised for something, they think they didn’t do a good job and even that they aren’t “good enough.” Children can feel this way even if they put out really good effort, made improvement, or did something really well. By praising in the wrong way, we can actually sabotage children’s ability to ever feel truly good about themselves. This is because they constantly crave more and better praise from others. In the end, they can become emotionally fragile, codependent, and “people pleasers.”

So let’s talk about how incredibly powerful encouragement and positive recognition are and how they differ from praise. I’m going to use some resources from Positive Discipline to demonstrate this. Here’s the source: Encouragement vs Praise.

Encouragement helps children to reflect on their achievements and efforts. Sometimes kids don’t realize how meaningful and important something they did was. Sometimes they don’t realize the great effort and good things they did. When this is the case, we can help them realize it with encouragement. Additionally, when they do know they did something well, encouragement helps them think about it in a way that brings it in deep and cements the power of it. Here’s a useful resource: Praise vs. Encouragement PDF

Here are some examples:

Praise: “I’m so proud of you. Here’s your reward.”

Encouragement: “You worked hard. You must be so proud of yourself.”

Praise: “You are such a good girl.”

Encouragement: “Thanks for helping. It made this go much better. I truly appreciate it.”



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