Thursday 6 August 2009

Behaviour Modification: Praise

While my previous entry focused on the punishment aspect of behaviour modification, I also wanted to talk about the other side: praise and rewards.

Praise and rewards are often considered a more “gentle” approach to parenting, but a closer look reveals that it is merely a “tame” version of punishments, just the flip side of the same issue – and the results are the same.

At its most manipulative, parents who use this parenting method seek to control the behaviour of the child by withholding attention until the child does something “good”, and then heaping on praise, giving them rewards, or showing lots of “positive attention” as incentive for the child to continue or repeat the behaviour in the future.

At its most innocent, parents have no other “motive” than simply wanting their child to feel loved, appreciated, and valued. Many were not praised as children and do not want the same for their children. But indiscriminate praise is not without its own dangers.

Instills Wrong Motives

Just as with punishment, the praise and rewards aspect of behaviour modification neglects to develop internal motivation within a child. Instead, the child obeys merely to gain praise or receive a reward. The child is taught to do the “right thing”, but for the wrong motives. True compassion, a sense of justice, good decision making, and sincere motives are not formed when praise is used to promote good behaviour.

Internal motivation, rather than external, will prompt a child to make a decision for the sake of the outcome itself. A child should be taught that chores are done in order to contribute to the functioning of a healthy household, not in order to earn an allowance. Good choices should be made because they are the right thing to do, not because they will be rewarded with a new toy. Grades earn a sense of pride in one’s work, not money or praise.

Instead, we have an entire generation of people who need external acknowledgement and appreciation for every little thing they do. There is no sense of self-pride in one’s work, no desire to do something if nothing is to be gained, no intrinsic joy in learning, and no value to an activity outside of what will be obtained from it.

Eventually, a child brought up with praise and rewards will find no incentive to make good choices when the parent isn’t there to notice and to praise them or when no reward will be gained from doing so. Not only will a child do things for the wrong motives, but they will come to do the “right” thing only where rewards or praise stand to be gained. Over time, they will need more praise or bigger rewards to achieve the same results. As they attain greater independence (for example, getting a job that enables them to buy their own “rewards”), they may decide it is no longer “worth it” – there is no need to do chores when they have their own source of income, no need to earn good grades when they don’t need the monetary reward, no incentive to behave a certain way to obtain an item they can now purchase for themselves, and so on.

Fosters Praise-Dependency

The overuse of praise soon fosters praise-dependency. As mentioned above, the child will come to do things only for the praise, rather than just for the sake of doing them. Above that, however, they are apt to become people-pleasers. This may seem fine to the parent at the time, until they discover that the parent will not always remain the sole source of the child’s praise-dependency. Seeking to please others is far less desirable when the people your child is seeking to please become his peers instead of you. The child will not have developed appropriate independence, autonomy, and critical thinking, rendering him far more susceptible to peer-pressure in his desire to gain praise and acceptance.

In his book “Punished by Rewards”, Alfie Kohn phrases it this way:

Praise, at least as commonly practiced, is a way of using and perpetuating children’s dependence on us. It sustains a dependence on our evaluations, our decisions about what is good and bad, rather than helping them begin to form their own judgments. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and offer the positive words they crave.

Even dependency on adult approval comes with consequences. As Kohn cites in his book, studies find that students whose teachers praise them heavily demonstrate less task persistence (diminished intrinsic motivation) and become tentative in their responses, answering in a questioning tone of voice. They are less likely to take initiative when it comes to sharing their ideas with other students, and have a tendency to back off from an idea they had put forward as soon as an adult disagrees with them.

Prevents Natural Learning

Praise disrupts the natural learning process by circumventing the natural rewards that follow a child’s choices. The child’s attention is directed away from these real rewards of their efforts and focused instead on an artificial reward (including praise) bestowed by someone else. Praising a child for sharing, for example, undermines the natural rewards of the action (such as making another child happy) and directs the focus to the parent’s approval of the child’s actions. In doing so, the natural learning experience is disrupted.

Indiscriminate praise comes with particular drawbacks. “Too much praise” renders all praise worthless. Our current strategy in schools, for example, of praising all children equally (in order not to hurt anyone’s feelings, of course) prevents them from coming to recognize their own personal strengths – and, concurrently, denies their personal weaknesses and potential areas of growth.

Reduces risk-taking

Afraid of losing approval or of not doing as well, highly-praised children will become more risk-averse, choosing instead to “play it safe”. A child’s creativity is reduced in the process. At the same time, however, praise encourages competition between siblings or peers, rather than building relationships and developing skills in working together.

Both as a result of forming risk-aversion and instilling wrong motives, praise promotes doing the very minimum required in order to attain the reward. There is no internal motivation to go “above and beyond”, no intrinsic value to learning, no desire to risk failure on a more ambitious undertaking if it means losing an adult’s approval.

Contradicts the Gospel

How repeatedly the Bible tells us that we cannot save ourselves! Our faith is a gift of God, our salvation through Christ alone. Our works can never save us - they are merely reflective of our love for God. Likewise, our child's "works" do not make him a "good boy or girl", and their value does not come from what they do. Scripture tells us that it is our hearts that matter more than our outward actions. "Good behaviour" that comes from wrong motives is not true obedience at all.

Constructive Praise

Yet despite all of these drawbacks (and more), most parents balk at the idea of never praising their children – myself included. Sincere praise is, indeed, vital to our relationships with our children, and can be constructive when given the right focus.

Most importantly, praise should always be sincere. Rather than manipulating the child, sincere praise allows us to share in our children's joy, support their endeavours, and provide specific feedback on their actions. When you are excited, let it show. Express your sincere happiness and enthusiasm over their growth. Be honest about your feelings.

Use thanks instead of praise. A simple thank-you is all the acknowledgement that obedience needs. When a child does something “big” to help out, be sincere in your appreciation (“thank you, that really helped me out and I appreciate it”). There is no need to praise a child for doing what you asked him to do in the first place – just thank him.

Be specific with your praise. Make observations and use descriptive rather than value-based language. Point out the natural rewards of a child’s action. Don’t go overboard praising every little thing a child does.

Praise effort and intent instead of focusing only on the end results. Acknowledge struggles, mistakes, and the process itself rather than just the outcome.

Reflect back to the child and ask them questions. “What do you like about your drawing? What do you think about your grades? How does that make you feel? What do you think about the results of that choice?”

Be aware of the intent behind your praise. Don’t use praise in order to shape a child’s behaviour. Be aware, also, of the effects of your praise so that you can recognized when your child is becoming praise-dependent – doing things in order to gain your praise rather than just for the sake of doing them. Observing this behaviour allows a parent to recognize that they need to reconsider their current method of praising. Perhaps the praise needs to be scaled back, perhaps the parent needs to reflect back to the child more, or perhaps some of the praise can be replaced with more specific observations.

Finally, praise who they are, for they have value simply by virtue of being. Their value does not come from their behaviour, their achievements, their appearance, or anything else. Though we may always be aware that our love is not conditional, our child needs to see, too, that our approval of him is not based on anything other than who he is.

I’d like to end with a comment left by Summer at Wired for Noise on my last post about punishment. These two short sentences sum up both entries perfectly:

“I want my children to act in certain ways because of internal motivation, because they understand these are the good things to do, because it makes them happy. Not because they are afraid of punishment or expecting a reward of some kind.”

May it be so with our own children.


  1. I always enjoy reading your views on this subject matter. It's food for thought when I have children.

  2. I have wanted to leave a more thoughtful comment for days -- I will get around to it, I promise! But I will say this is a very well thought out argument and good points made. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Another great post.

    We could add to the list of wrong motives: stops working for good grades when it's no longer "worth" it, like when you have all your passing grades, and the next course doesn't count. Or if you need a 60% to pass, and you strive for that, nothing more, as long as you "pass". I've known LOTS of people like that in my studies, and I've personally never understood it. Yes, I strove for A's. Because I wanted to know that I have done my best possible.

    In the same line, I was always disappointed when my parents placed focus on the actual grade, and not the effort. When they were upset when I came home with a 44% on my algebra test. But, I had tried SO HARD. Math just isn't my thing!! I eventually managed to get my grades up, for my own satisfaction, but I would have appreciated if they would have recognized that personality trait in me (I am their daughter, after all), and just been happy that I was trying my best. And trust that I would find my way. My mom still teases me today when I count the dots on playing cards... (Yes - I do!) Hey, I studied Arts... not Math!!! For a reason! :)

    I think it's hard though, to consciously never praise for nothing. Like when your 4 years old brings you a drawing, to not say "Ooh, nice piece!" What would you say? Would "Nice, I can see you really worked hard on that piece" count as praise as well? Even if it's praising the effort? Because I can see how the child might want to give a drawing just to be told he worked hard, eventually... maybe?

    Thanks for giving us such great food for thoughts!

  4. Joe, your examples are so relevant and true. I often experienced the same thing in regards to my grades - "what happened here, why did you get an A instead of an A+?" My feelings were very much similar to yours. On the one hand I recognize that they wanted to push me to do my best, but on the other hand it's hard not to feel hurt anyway, as though the things I did wrong were constantly pointed out without any acknowledgement of my intents or my effort.

    Because of that, it was sooo hard for me, too, not to constantly praise my son over every tiny little thing. It is still a struggle for me to praise in a more constructive manner, but I like to think I'm improving! Take your example of the child showing you his drawing - rather than the typical "oooh, what a pretty picture, great job!", our praise can instead be focused on the effort ("It looks like you worked really hard on this picture!"), be specific ("I especially like all the different colours you used."), and can be reflected back towards the child ("What is your favourite part of the drawing?").

    You made a good point about a child eventually getting to a point where he shows you his drawing just to be told he worked hard on it. I think being aware of that possibility and recognizing that it happens will, again, allow us to refocus our praise and improve on how constructive it is. If, for example, he starts scribbling a fast picture and showing it to you, you wouldn't praise effort because you know effort wasn't made. That might be a good point to start simply reflecting - "what do you think of this picture you just drew? Do you feel like you worked hard on it? What do you like about it? What could you do better next time?" Of course that should be age-appropriate, and it should take into consideration the child's interests and abilities - maybe he really had no thought toward "working hard" on a drawing. Instead of praising effort, you can point out that it looked like he had a lot of fun drawing it! It's all so individual and situation-specific, but I think the most important part is to be aware of the child's level of praise-dependency as well as of our own intent with the praise.

    Thanks again for your feedback, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the subject. :)

  5. This is bang on. There are too many parentings giving other parents bad advice on using time-outs and punishment. This kind of convenience parenting is just short term focussed, and doesn't rely on inner development of self-esteem and confidence. Well done - keep the great articles coming. Our attachment parenting blog can be found at

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  7. It's annoying how you can't "edit" a comment... ;-)

    @Hippie Housewife - good points! I like your thoughts on it, such as to point out they had fun drawing it, what they like about it, etc. I think, too, that it opens up so much more opportunities for open discussion, much more than just saying "Ah, wow" and pinning it on the fridge! :)

    My mom is much more of the praiser type, saying Yay's, Bravo's, Good Girl's and etc. everytime Ariana signs, pees in the potty (or lets us know)... I'm debating the need to broach the "behaviour modification & praise" issue versus just letting her do it - is it so bad if one person in her entourage does a different model? I like to believe that, as her parent, we give her the bulk of her raising and influence, and of course we can't control each and every interactions she has with other people, now and in the future. Also, kids can be very discriminating, and now what type of behaviour and feedback to expect with one person versus another. Meh! Another example on how to negotiate an alternative parenting style with your family in a gentle, non-criticizing and non-confrontational way :)

    @kootenay - Agreed! Loads of people in my entourage often have "tips and tricks" for me. However, although they do have good points on some things, with some of them I simply happen to have a very different parenting style/approach, and I hate always being questioned or looked on weirdly when we have playdates and I chose to do things like pick DD up when she is upset or just simply asks to be picked up, baby wear, leave early because she needs to that day, not give her time-outs, etc...

  8. Since reading this post, I find I've been more "aware" of my praising with DD (14 mo). I find I can often stop myself when I come to praise her (such as "Goof girl!" and "Bravo!"), or if I say it I'll notice it.

    What I find that I do more often than not is say things like "That's it", or the French equivalent, "C'est ├ža." Not said in a party way, just a casual matter-of-fact way. For example, if she is playing with her shape bucket, and manages to get one of the shapes in, I'll say "Yep, that's it." "That's where it goes. Now try this one." Or, if I do occasionally say "Good", or "Good girl", it will be very casual, like "Good, yes, that's it. That's how you put it in. Can you put this one in?"

    So I wonder, though, are my "That's it" just another form of praise? Or is it considering the effort, as in you tried and turned and pushed, and you found the right hole? I always reoriented her to try it again with a different shape afterwards. And nothing is said in a YAY!!! tone.

    I'm curious to see what others think of this! I think it's not praise, but I'm only starting to move away from it. :)

    Anecdote: some friends were over this morning for a playdate, and one of the girls is potty training (she's a bit older). She went in her potty and everyone was having a party about it, and she was of course all excited. She came to me, but I really couldn't join in in the same way, it kind of goes against what I believe. So I said "Yes, that's it, you went in the potty." She looked at me, wondered where the party was, realized it sure as heck wasn't with me, and turned around. heh I just thought it was amusing, and in a way proved this discussion that they end up seeking the praise (she did potty about 5-7 times during the 1h30 playdate).

  9. Joe - I think there's nothing wrong with "that's it"... you are still in the teaching mode, vs praise mode I think there... a grade 2 teacher friend of mine suggested this approach: Ask questions after an "achievement" and use language like "you must be proud of yourself for doing (action)"... I like that idea - or even, show or explain to me how you did that again? Shows you are interested and improves self esteem by having the child lead you through their thought process...

  10. @kootenay - That's how I saw it too, thanks! Those examples that you give are good too, I'll put them in my "bag". :)