Praise Be! ...or Maybe Not

Betsy Brown Braun
July 28, 2009

Whenever I hear a parent or teacher say "good job!" to a child (or to anyone!), it makes my skin crawl.  I know it is said with good intentions, but it is such a bland phrase. It is a "verbal doggie biscuit," to quote a well-known educator. All that it says to the child is Mommy is satisfied with what I did.  It's all about pleasing Mommy or teacher. End of story. Listen to how often you say that phrase!

But praise is actually a very useful and meaningful tool in raising children. You probably don't even give it a second thought...but you should. The way in which you praise your child can enhance her development in really positive ways.

There are two things about praise for you to know.  First, children need to learn to be self-praising; the idea is for the praise to be intrinsic, to come from within. This is crucial because we want our children to learn to be their own judges and not to rely on others for feedback and evaluation. Children who are constantly told "good job" for everything they do come to rely on that buzz phrase and on you. They become praise and approval addicted.

Second, praise is supposed to encourage children to do more of the same, more of whatever has just elicited your exclamation.  Saying "good job" does the opposite.  It also puts an end to the action. It is final, over and done, good enough, no need to do that again. But praise should motivate the child to do it again.

In that same vein, when praise is a judgment, as in good job, it chips away at the child's ability to judge herself. The child comes to rely on you or the adult in charge to tell her what is right or wrong, good or bad. She learns to measure her worth in terms of your judgment. How can that be a good thing?

Praise-addicted children grow up to be praise-dependent adults, the ones who need a good job slap on the back in order to feel good about themselves. They are not self motivated. Rather, they are forty-year-olds who still are seeking their parents' approval.

Here are some tips for making the most out of praising your child:

  • Make your praise specific. Speak specifically to what is praise worthy. "You carried your jacket in from the car and I didn't even have to remind you!" Your voice will communicate your pleasure, and the child will do it again next time.
  • Focus on the action, not the outcome. Describe the process that is deserving of praise without evaluating the product. "You worked for a long time on that painting, and you covered the whole page. That took a lot of effort."
  • Start your praise with the word "You." The focus should be on the child and not on you. The word "I" is usually followed by your judgment, and the idea is for the child to judge herself. "You built that building so high." or "You look so pleased with your work." or "It looks like green is your favorite color. You covered the whole page with it."
  • Don't blindly praise every act accomplished. Doing so makes your praise cheap.
  • Be honest in your comments. I once responded to my son's question of whether I liked his picture which had been haphazardly created, with "Well Ben, I like things that you work hard on, and you sure didn't work very hard on that." (In this case, the words "I" and "like" were necessary to make my point.)
  • Praise the act, not the child. "You cleaned up the whole playroom. What an amazing amount of work you did!"
  • Praise one child at a time. It is okay to offer praise to just one child, even though the sibling is pleading, "What about me?" You can say, "Right now I am just talking about Billy."
  • Praise yourself. Show pride when you deserve it. That provides a good model for your children of feeling good about yourself.



From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

    Great article! Really shows the potential problems of the unintended consequences. Wish all parents knew and used this information daily, but "good job" is quick and easy to use relative to thinking of a specific praise for each event.

    over a year ago


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