Praise Cripples Youth


“What a good job you’re doing,” the teacher says, as a three-year-old girl puts on her shoe. “Look how good your doing sitting there” a parent says to her one-year old sitting in an adult size wooden chair. “Good job,” a nanny says to a three year old who is asked to pick up the train set. And she continues to say it for each time he stops to bend over to pick up the tracks and trains. What a “good job,” “that is so…beautiful,” the parent repeats to her four year old showing a painting she worked on. Spend any significant time around places where adults and kids are mingling and count the amount of “good jobs” being slung around, without much questioning to the crippling impact it can have on the natural development of a children. Will incessant praise raise children who are secure, confident, self-reliant, and critical with their thinking?

Culturally, we are a praised craze society; we simple endure it and don’t put much question or assessment into this use of language and the effect it has on the natural development of a child. When a child is swimming in praise from adults, after completing a painting or constructing a Lego ship, this then becomes a continually sought out validation, as a sense of security and self-esteem, begin to fall by the wayside. When we really listen to why we use praise, we can then revaluate its effect on the development on a child.

Praise are temporary rewards offered by the one doing the praising, usually because they think a child automatically needs it or to get a child to comply with their whishes. Either verbally, through bribery, or food, praise may lead to a quick approval rating gauged by the adults, but are we the ones who should measuring their outcome?

A kid in our preschool class is taking a violin class and comments that he “has been goofing off,” when I ask him what he likes about violin class. He also mentions that he likes receiving candy. Over hearing a conversation later in the day that the father has with the violin instructor, I hear the father encouraging the violin teacher to use gum, as a means to get the boy to follow instruction, instead of “goofing off.” The boy’s father also remarks to the violin instructor, how this method seems to work at home.

Lets rephrase the question differently; if adults went around praising each other after each time we used the potty, tied or shoes, or cleaned off our plate after supper, or offer candy for doing a chore, would we not question their motive? We might even think the person has some sort of social anxiety. Yet, there are adults who saturate kids with ooey, gooey, dripping praise that just may get a kid stuck, waiting for the adult for the full approval.

At the preschool I teach at we are careful not to inject praise in to our language. A visiting teacher was not aware of our philosophy concerning use of language and the effects of praise, and spent the day going around praising preschoolers with the “good job,” to the point other kids not receiving direct praise would make comments – “what about me.”

Alfie Kohn an outspoken author on several books on education and parenting, explains it well in Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” (YOUNG CHILDREN, September 2001):

In short, “Good job!” doesn’t reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure. It may even create a vicious circle such that the more we slather on the praise, the more kids seem to need it, and so we praise them some more. Sadly, some of these kids will grow into adults who continue to need someone else to pat them on the head and tell them whether what they did was OK. Surely this is not what we want for our daughters and sons.

But with all of this critique on what many consider praise as positive re-enforcement for children, what are the alternatives? And why are these ways of communicating with youth more effective to empowering self-reliance and critical thinking?
Kohn has developed some strategies, which are useful when kids are wanted some sort of validation or approval, as developmentally they naturally look up to adults.

Say what you saw. A simple, evaluation-free statement (“You put your shoes on by yourself” or even just “You did it”) tells your child that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback – not judgment – about what you noticed: “This mountain is huge!” “Boy, you sure used a lot of purple today!”

If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: “Look at Abigail’s face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack.” This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing

Talk less, ask more. Even better than descriptions are questions. Why tell him what part of his drawing impressed you when you can ask him what he likes best about it? Asking “What was the hardest part to draw?” or “How did you figure out how to make the feet the right size?” is likely to nourish his interest in drawing. Saying “Good job!” as we’ve seen, may have exactly the opposite effect.

Kids constantly want to impress teachers or parents, and we need to take caution in not abusing this idolizing. We’re bombarded everyday with, “look what I can do or look what I just did,” and it is easy to just say, “good job or that’s great!” But as loving adults in a child’s life we don’t want to take away their pleasure in self-discovery, nor do we want to cut them sort on their own entitlement of self-accomplishment.

And with the child who is “goofing off “ during violin class; we need to revaluate why he acting this way, instead of the father and teacher wanting to find a convenient obedient short cut. Is he behaving this way because violin class does not provide the movement he needs, as a five-year old boy? Is it because he is not interested in sitting for thirty minutes and is searching for alternative ways to interact? At least this is looking at the needs of the child, rather than advocating for bribery or buttering him with praise, to curve an undesired behavior. This is a quick, convenient, remedial approach that will wear out in due time. Instead of the approach of bribery why not take the time out, to simply ask the child if he wants to continue to go to violin class.

In short, praise is a quick fix solution that does not support self-autonomy and confidence, but rather places judgment. Surely we don’t want this sort of influence on kids, when they are the leaders of tomorrow.

Preschool Punks. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint/publish, please contact Paul at riseout@riseup.net

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  1. #1 by Melody on November 10, 2007 - 4:56 am

    This is so rediculous. A positive affirmation to any child has no affect on a child’s self esteem or self worth. If we would tell our children “good job” more often, we’d have a healthier society.

  2. #2 by RISEOUT on November 10, 2007 - 5:32 am

    If a “healthier” society is based on an expectation of receiving rewards, praise, and more “good jobs,” then we are setting the stage for a co-dependent society operating on false idealisms of predictability and complacency. Surely, we can do better when relating to kids then just a nervous rhetorical twitch, without rethinking the impact it may have on stymieing their independence. And don’t most parents just want their kids to make conscious choices that are based on the gratification of what their little hearts endear and desire, rather than waiting to hear another “good job?” I think the simple words of validation, such as: YOU GOT IT KID!…puts the focus where it belongs – confidently within their selves. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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