Reappraising Praise: Q&A With Dr. Mary

boys in a line

Today, Dr. Mary is talking about the value of using praise with young children.

Q: My son's kindergarten teacher is constantly saying, "great work" to my son and the other kids in his class, even for things that are seemingly very mundane and well-learned. I feel like she overdoes it and am wondering what the current thinking is about praising children. I've heard mixed things from my friends.


A: It seems that most well-intentioned teachers and parents believe that by verbally praising children, for nearly anything that the child is doing right, regardless of how vague the praising statement might be, they're ensuring that the child will be motivated to keep up that behavior. However, as Child Development and Behavior Specialist Betsy Brown Braun has noted, most praise includes words that convey judgment; when a child is praised with judgment, he becomes unable to judge for himself and instead learns to depend on others (adults) to determine what is good or bad. Eventually children attempt to behave in ways that will please those dispensing the praise and come to estimate their worthiness by how much or how little they have pleased parents or teachers. Over time, children may become dependent on this external reinforcement and, therefore, dependent on adult feedback. Brown Braun refers to this as being "praise addicted." Too much praise keeps kids from being self-motivated and feeling good about something on their own.

There are better ways to praise young children. Here are some suggestions included in another one of my favorite books, Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents, by Brown Braun.

Be specific. Consider what exact behaviors you've seen and what you want to say about them. Be very specific with your comments: "You put your Legos away without me having to remind you." "You helped me set the table."

Start with you. Begin your praising comments with the word "You" rather than "Good," "Great," or "Awesome." The idea is that you, the adult, want the child to feel an internal sense of pride in what he has done and, because of this feeling, want him to do what he's done again in the future. While feeling your own sense of pride is okay, this is not reason enough for kids to want to behave positively.

Praise the behavior. Ideally, you want to praise effort not outcome, and your praising statements shouldn't include a value judgment. This may seem contrary to how some teachers were trained and what we as parents have been told to do. By leaving out an "evaluation" of what the child has done, again the hope is that he will be internally motivated to behave rather than behave just to receive your acknowledgements. For example, instead of saying, "Awesome job drawing," you could say, "You drew a picture of our family. It really has a lot of details and it's very colorful."

Praise the outcome of the behavior. When your child does something positive for someone else, phrase your praising comments in a way that focuses on the impact of his behavior. For example, instead of saying, "I'm so happy you helped your sister with her puzzle," say something like, "Look at how happy your sister looks that you helped her finish the puzzle."

Praising comments can convey expectations. Phrasing your comments in such a way allows your child to learn what's expected from you. Instead of saying, "Great job putting on your shoes," you could say, "You put your shoes on all by yourself, without anyone helping you."

Provide praise through questions. Phrasing your comments as questions can be a powerful way to show that you have noticed positive behaviors. For instance, "How did you choose these colors for your drawing?"

"Generic" praising is a hard habit to break, but in the long run, commenting on your child's behavior in this manner should help reduce how praise-dependent he becomes. Wow! You've read this entire post.

Dr. Mary Rosen is here each week to provide answers to your most pressing school issues. She's a school psychologist, licensed counselor, graduate school instructor, and parent.

Got a question about school learning and behavior for Dr. Mary? Leave it in the comments below or email us, and Dr. Mary may answer your question in a future post.


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