The problem with praise for children blog feature image

The problem with praise for children

Many parents consider praise essential when it comes to raising healthy, secure children. After all, we want to boost their confidence, foster positive self-esteem, and motivate them to succeed. However, an over reliance on praise can actually have unintended, and sometimes negative consequences for our children.

Generic phrases like “Good boy”, or “Great job” often don’t send the message to our children we want them to. They actually communicate conditional, rather than unconditional love and regard. And when heard too frequently, they can be perceived by our children as insincere and inauthentic, which causes them to stop listening to us, and stop believing the things we say about them. This means it has the potential to damage the connection we have with our children, who lose trust in us and our words.

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Praise can also damage intrinsic motivation, create pressure and anxiety for children and unfortunately, tends to be used as a tool for manipulating children’s behaviour and getting them to do what we want. And of course, our very clever children often see right through this, which means praise can lose its impact very quickly, and once again, damage connection.

So let’s take a look at some of the problems associated with using praise for children, and talk about how to begin moving away from an over reliance on praise, so we can adopt healthier strategies that actually lift our children up and help them feel good about themselves. Because that’s our goal, right?!

But first, let’s take a closer look at some of the main problems with praising children:

1. It damages intrinsic motivation

While praise may seem like a straightforward way to encourage children, excessive use of praise can actually hinder their intrinsic motivation. Research in the field of psychology has highlighted the importance of intrinsic motivation, which refers to engaging in an activity for the inherent enjoyment and satisfaction it provides. When children are intrinsically motivated, they are more likely to be curious, persistent, and willing to take on challenges. However, excessive praise can undermine this intrinsic motivation by creating a dependence on external rewards.

When children become overly reliant on external validation, such as praise, they may lose touch with their inherent drive to explore, learn, and accomplish tasks for their own sake. Instead, their focus shifts to seeking approval and praise from others. In short, praise motivates children not to complete a task, or even to do their best, but simply to achieve further praise.

In fact, research tells us that children who are praised regularly for completing tasks, can start to lose interest in these activities, even if they previously experienced enjoyment from them. Which means that when we rely on praise, the inherent value of an activity becomes lost in the race for external validation, and we literally rob our children of joy.

2. It damages self esteem

I know, this one sounds counter intuitive, right? But when praise is contingent upon specific actions or outcomes, children may feel compelled to conform to those expectations, even if it goes against their own interests or preferences. This can inadvertently stifle their creativity, independence, and critical thinking skills and impact the way they view themselves.

Children are naturally curious and have their own unique ways of exploring the world. By using praise to steer their behavior in a particular direction, we limit their freedom to explore alternative paths and make their own discoveries. This can hinder their ability to think independently and to develop a strong sense of self.

And when praise is frequently showered upon them, children may develop an unhealthy dependence on that praise, seeking constant approval to validate their worthiness, or believing that their worth is dependent upon their ability to achieve or perform.

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3. It can create anxiety and perfectionism

Excessive praise can have a significant impact on the emotional well-being of children. It can create an unrealistic expectation for constant success and perfection and can lead to feelings of pressure and anxiety. Children may become more focused on seeking praise and avoiding failure rather than embracing challenges and developing resilience.

Children who are regularly praised for being smart, for example, may feel pressure to live up to that label and even become afraid to try challenging tasks, for fear of missing out on praise if they make a mistake.

If others receive praise and they do not, these children may question themselves and the quality of their work or the value of their contribution. They may feel compelled to work harder and harder in pursuit of this external validation, never feeling that their work is good enough, without a stamp of approval from others.

What to do instead?

A lot of parents struggle with the idea of removing praise. They argue that children need positive words spoken about them. And so I want to be clear here: Occasional praise isn’t going to irreparably harm our children. There’s no need to panic every time the words, “Great job” slip out of our mouths.
And I agree that children do need to hear positive words spoken to and about them! They need words of affirmation. They need adults to express interest in them, to express love for them, to celebrate their accomplishments with them, and to acknowledge them. They need adults who really see them and appreciate them for who they are.

But none of that requires us to give them praise.

What it does require, is for us to shift our focus from praise, which tends to be conditional in nature, to encouragement, which can be provided unconditionally. By looking at HOW we praise and encourage children, and making a few small shifts in our language, we can ensure our words actually have meaning for our children and land the way we intend them to!

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Here are 6 things to try instead of generic praise for children:

1. Emphasize effort and progress

Instead of solely praising outcomes, focus on acknowledging the effort, persistence, and growth children demonstrate along the way. Encourage a growth mindset and celebrate their journey of learning and improvement.

Try this: “Wow, you worked really hard on this and it shows!”

2. Be specific and genuine

Rather than generic and empty praise, offer specific feedback that highlights their strengths, skills, and unique qualities. Genuine compliments that are rooted in observation and sincerity hold more value and foster a deeper sense of self-belief than empty praise.

Try this: “Oh I love the tail on that unicorn! It’s so colourful and bright!” Or, “I noticed that you helped your brother tie his shoelaces earlier, that was so kind of you.”

3. Encourage self-reflection and self-evaluation

Teach children to assess their own performance and set personal goals. By developing self-awareness and encouraging self-evaluation, they become less reliant on external praise and more driven by their internal standards.

Try this: “How do you think your test went?” Or, “Which part of your assignment did you find the most challenging?”

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4. Focus on process over outcome

Encourage children to focus on the process of learning, problem-solving, and critical thinking, rather than solely on the end result. By valuing the journey, we instil a sense of intrinsic motivation and appreciation for the learning process itself.

Try this: “That’s such a unique/interesting/creative idea! How did you come up with that?”

5. Foster a supportive and encouraging environment

Create an environment where children feel safe to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them. Provide constructive feedback and encourage them to develop a growth mindset, where challenges are seen as opportunities for growth and improvement.

Try this: “Wow! That was really tough but you kept trying and you did it!’

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6. Teach self-validation

Help children develop a sense of self-worth that is not solely dependent on external validation. Teach them to value their own opinions, beliefs, and accomplishments, fostering self-confidence and resilience.

Try this: “What do you like best about your painting? What are you most proud of?”

7. Express gratitude

By replacing phrases like “Great job” with a sincere expression of gratitude, we send a message that we truly appreciate our children and the important contribution they are making to our family or classroom.

Try this: “Thanks so much for your help with the dishes. We get it done so much faster when we work together!”

While praise often slips easily out of our mouths and is generally well intentioned, it is crucial to be mindful of its potential pitfalls. Excessive praise can hinder intrinsic motivation and impact the emotional well-being of children. By shifting from praise to encouragement and emphasizing things like effort, progress, and genuine feedback, we can empower children to develop a resilient sense of self and foster their innate love for learning.

Let us celebrate their uniqueness, nurture their passions, and guide them towards becoming confident, self-motivated individuals.

Sarah Conway is a child and adolescent psychologist, mother of 4, and founder of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 15 years of experience working in mental health with children, teenagers, and families. Sarah’s mission is to help parents move away from punitive parenting strategies and towards mindful, intentional parenting that builds emotional intelligence in children and parents alike. As a busy mum herself, she knows firsthand how difficult mindful parenting can be, particularly when it was never modeled by our own parents. That’s why she provides parents and children with simple, practical strategies and tools that help them learn to manage emotions – together. She believes that changing the way we parent will change the world.


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