Kids Don’t Need or Want Your Praise
There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the idea of not praising children. Alfie Kohn, an author on education, human behavior, and parenting has argued that, “Rewards and punishment are two sides of the same coin.” He’s talking about the coin of coercion and manipulation. Carrots and sticks. And praise falls squarely into the reward category.
Kohn uses the phrase “good job” as an example, calling it a “verbal doggie cookie.” Most parents, teachers, and coaches use the phrase so much it no longer has any real meaning other than “I approve.” It’s also contextually inaccurate. Kids are not doing jobs, they’re trying to explore and enjoy life. So praise, whether you intend it to be or not, is often seen by children as a reward.
Rewards and punishments (including praise) can also communicate to children that they are loved, accepted, and approved-of conditionally. This is not the intention of most parents, but intention doesn’t matter. All that matters is what the child experiences and how they interpret those experiences. When you praise and light up when kids do well and withdraw or criticize when they don’t, they quickly get the message that they must meet certain conditions in order to get their emotional needs met.
Praise is also the adult’s judgement of an outcome. And whenever an adult is judging an outcome, the child will override their own judgement and adopt the adult’s. Or fail to judge the outcome at all. This runs counter to healthy, authentic self-esteem. To be fulfilled, kids must be able to judge situations and outcomes for themselves.
But is praise really a reward? Does it really create the same negative outcome as a sticker book for good behavior or a new toy for doing some good deed? Don’t kids need it? These are the questions even the most authentic parents struggle with. I heard a very principled parenting leader recently say, “I think praise can be overdone, but I don’t think we should go to the extreme of not praising children at all.”
It’s easy for revolutionary parents to see the destructiveness of punishments and rewards, but it’s very difficult to let go of praise. It leads people to feel negligent. And confused. What do I say and do instead?
If you’re not quite sold on the “praise is counter-productive” argument, or if you still think praise is a good idea in some capacity, let me help you see this from another angle…
Praise is not naturally sought by children. They don’t need it and they don’t want it. It is counter to their psychological development.
Parents think children need praise for optimal development, but it only clouds their development. The previous three arguments—and the research that Alfie Kohn often cites regarding rewards—shows this.
Parents think children want praise, but it’s not truly what they want. Only children who have previously been praised, seek praise. What children want and need is your attention and your interest. That’s all. No more, no less. That’s what children naturally seek. Children don’t say, “Dad, come praise me.” They say, “Dad, come watch me.” Or, “Mom, come participate with me.”
When children accomplish something, they don’t look to see if you’ll praise them, they look to see if you were watching them. Your attention and your interest in them is what fulfills them in that moment.
Refraining from telling them how good they did or how proud of them you are is not negligence, it’s great leadership. It affords them the space needed to judge their own work and bathe in their own intrinsic pride. And because they have your attention and interest, they get to celebrate that with you. That’s pure fulfillment.
When children fail at something, they don’t naturally hope you’ll criticize them. What children want and need in times of failure is, again, your attention and your interest. If they’re confused, they’ll want your guidance. If they’re hurt, they’ll want your validation. They want your safety. They want your connection.
Parents who are stuck in the praise/criticize paradigm have children who embellish victories and hide or lie about failures. Kids’ biological need for unconditional love and acceptance *requires* them to be inauthentic in that paradigm. And of course, when parents catch children doing this they criticize even further. They don’t understand the loop they’ve created. They especially don’t understand that the loop isn’t safe.
Since kids don’t want or need praise, and because it’s counter-productive, there’s no reason to use it. Even sparingly. If you’re having trouble overcoming your desire to praise, it’s almost certainly because praising your children makes *you* feel good. It has nothing to do with your kids.
And that’s okay. It’s a challenge I’d encourage you to overcome, but it doesn’t make you a bad parent. Just acknowledge that your use of praise is about you and not them. Being an authentic parent is as much about being honest with yourself as it is with your kids. That authenticity will take you to where you want to go as a revolutionary parent.
Yes, a smile, a hug, cuddles, or just nothing at all. At minimum, attention requires eye contact and engagement. Just enjoy each others company, like two friends.
This is a great post. Praise is also problematic because it creates a false and unstable sense of self esteem, as well as contributes to the creation of all the little “snowflakes” we see today with little independence and tenacity.
Certainly all my daughter ever asked for was for me to play with her. Games are great for this.
But it still doesn’t address the central reason parents use praise and positive reinforcement in the first place: to correct problematic behavior and help children be able to fit within a highly social world.