Is Praise Good for Children?

Martha believes that good parenting includes paying attention to her children and praising them. It is important for their self-esteem. Mary disagrees. She tells the story of how, at the age of 19, after dropping out of college her daughter said: “Everyone says I’m smart, but I don’t feel it.” She blames her habit of praising her.

What do you think? What do you do? Is Praise good for children, or is it bad?

And now, we are

into a new year.




In it.

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29 thoughts on “Is Praise Good for Children?

  1. Is praise good for children? Is oatmeal good for children? Sure, if given appropriately, genuinely and not over done. What is too much or too little? It’s well known that positive reinforcement works but I would say that again, it’s a whole lot more effective if it’s authentic and balanced. It also seems to me that praise cannot be the same for all levels of achievement or desirable behavior. Getting a good grade on a paper or at the end of a course might be worth a few good words but not a new car or some electronic gizmo game. What I have observed is a tendency toward rewarding children with external, material objects as a form of praise rather than helping a child to feel good within themselves about their accomplishments. And when the child gets older as in the example above, the 19 year old now off to a job or to college, who better to reward that person than the individual herself? The self-satisfaction of a job well done may be worth more than the words coming from someone else.
    It feels good to be recognized and appreciated for one’s efforts and achievements. It feels even better to have that sense of reward that builds self-esteem, confidence and courage. Onward….

  2. Thank you, Gary. You say: “The self-satisfaction of a job well done may be worth more than the words coming from someone else.” is that less true when the child is younger? Is praising the baby for finding the nipple more rewarding than the nipple itself?

  3. Two things.

    I think specific praise, which acknowledges effort rather than outcome, is much more appreciated by children than a parent repeatedly saying something general, like “good job.” Quality matters a lot more than quantity.

    As far as the whole “smart” thing, the term is all too vague and a word that I don’t think parents or teachers should use at all. Whereas many people think of a smart individual as “having or showing quick intelligence or ready mental capability,” as defines it, there are really many different ways to be intelligent (think Howard Gardner). The quick thinker, for example, may not be a deep or reflective thinker like another child might be. Or, one child might be a lot more creative than another is. So, the more we emphasize individuality, and help our children find it in themselves, the less they will feel the need to measure themselves against some sort of invisible yardstick.

    Great post! Short, to the point, and thought provoking. Thanks.

  4. Praise is only as good as the sincerity behind it. I think that many parents and teachers praise EVERYTHING so the child will “feel good” about him/herself, but if everything is praised, then how does one really know what’s a good job? When my kids were really little, my husband and I praised their efforts lavishly. As they mastered things, we praised them less so, and guided them towards new things to master, again praising their efforts. We fought for balance; he thought that our two children should be working towards all A’s on their report cards, which worked really well for our daughter – a naturally driven student, but not for our son – who was less motivated by grades. Our son was coming to feel that nothing he did was good enough for my husband, which was de-motivating him rapidly! I felt they should be working at doing their best – regardless of the grading outcomes. We began by praising his efforts – “Hey, you did really well in English this term. What do you think made you so successful?” Once we took the grading cloud away from our son’s head, he worked harder on his own, and we praised his efforts, and supported his trials – “Wow. You worked really hard on that paper; we can see how disappointed you are that it didn’t score highly. What do you think it needed?” He thinks more about what he’s doing, and is motivated to do his best work.

    Parents who reward for grades – with monetary or material prizes – just set themselves up for later tribulations. How much is an “A” really worth? If it’s worth $10 in third grade, how much more in 6th? In high school? In college? Scholarships are the ultimate reward for doing well academically. To help kids WANT to do well, praise should be sprinkled liberally while learning, and pride should be lavished upon mastery. You can’t put a price on pride!

  5. Praising accomplishments is essential. False praise, never. Praising effort, yes, but judiciously.

    As a coach, I know that giving praise for accomplishments and effort is magical, while giving praise for things that aren’t achievements devalues praise that’s deserved. Example: Parent bought trophies for 2nd grade players after a losing season. The next year, the kids joked about how it didn’t matter whether they played well or not, they would still get a trophy.

    This seems so obvious, but wasn’t at all obvious to the trophy-buying parent, who is still proud of her daughter even though her daughter never bought in. (Guess who the trophy was really for

  6. Hi Rick,

    Absolutely praise should be given when deserved; as should the rest of the spectrum of honest feedback including constructive criticism and disappointment, even anger when appropriate. It’s the honesty, clarity and awareness of real world expectations that are good for children not just the praise per se.


  7. Interesting question that brings to mind Alphie Kohn’s work. Intrinsic motivation is superior and sometimes gratuitous praise is seen as phony or can distract children from tasks. Some research has shown that children will abandon a task after receiving praise. But, who doesn’t like to be recognized for doing great work. I loved the encouragement my 3rd grade teacher, Mr. Smith, gave me for my writing. I think as long as praise is specific, sincere, and authentic, it is a wonderful thing. Kids are smart enough to pick up on phoniness. I think we all know that. Another thought provoking post, Rick. Thank you.

  8. I think Alfie Kohn got it right. There is a lot of scientific data that explains why intrinisic motivation is so important and how we get in the way of that by trying to manipulate anyone’s behavior with controlling “praise” or “criticism”. Adults don’t like it as much a kids don’t like it and it creates a dynamic in which the child becomes driven to get the “positive attention” instead of the natural reward which might be a feeling of accomplishment at mastery of a task. Encouragement is different than praise. Alfie Kohn really hits the mark in the Punished by Rewards book. Also, How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen So Kids will talk has a great discussion and excellent examples of how quickly random praise takes the wind out of naturally full sails.

  9. I’d say praise is great as long as the goal is not to prop up the ego of the subject darling. Praise with perspective and context is the thing. As it is with all guidance and advice.

    Great post and comments.

  10. Thank you all for the great discussion. My wish for MMXI: broad conversation with more light and less heat. Changing our educational paradigm requires some new thinking–collaborative thinking.

  11. Rick, I love that you ask about infants and praise, because you touch on something so important (to me, anyway). “Is that less true when the child is younger? Is praising the baby for finding the nipple more rewarding than the nipple itself?”

    Yes, it definitely can be, which is exactly why we shouldn’t do it.

    Infancy is when the move away from intrinsic motivation and authenticity to pleasing others (namely parents) begins. Infants need to experience mastery, too, to build confidence, but they sense early on that their basic survival depends on parental acceptance. They need us desperately. This makes them extremely vulnerable to the responses they get, not just in terms of praise, but also the way we respond when they are struggling to accomplish tasks. Most of us find it difficult to allow a baby to fuss and cry a little when he, for example, works to fulfill his need for sucking by finding his thumb. We naturally want to ‘fix’ babies when they cry, but there’s a delicate balance between filling a need and inadvertently sending the message, “I don’t like it when you struggle”, or “you can’t do it without my help”.

    Our babies are extremely dependent on us. So, I believe it our job to respond to their needs, but also look for areas in which they can be a little autonomous and encourage them. We should acknowledge their efforts and successes rather than praise them, and also allow them to have developmentally appropriate struggles. Overcoming obstacles and adversity is the way to true self-confidence. (At least, that’s what a praise junkie like me believes.)

  12. Thank you, Janet. Very important for all educators. We don’t want to pre-empt intrinsic motivation, do we? Resisting that initial urge to praise (OUR happiness for them) requires discipline so that we channel a good urge into an effective expression of our happiness for THEM.

  13. All children need and deserve praise. What we praise is the catch! No child is the best, the smarest, the most beautiful…even though we, as parents, think they are:) We must offer praise when truly deserved. Did they work hard at a task? Did they TRY even when they were intimidated by something? Were they kind to another or offer assistance in some way? In the 80’s, self-esteem parenting replaced good discipline. When children are truly loved, given praise when appropriate, offered direction and guidance for growth and character, and offered security of faith and family….self-esteem will naturally occur. Blessings for a great year with your family!

  14. *smartest, *replaced –

    Janet – I agree wholeheartedly with your post on infants. It is our job to respond to their needs with loving affection, but help them move toward self-comfort and appropriate degrees of independence. Rushing to the aid of growing children, hinders more than helps. We do have to allow them to struggle a bit in order to have the successess necessary for development.

  15. Yes, ‘discipline’ is good word, because that’s the way it feels when we want our children to feel like 10 million bucks — we’re so proud of them — but we temper our response in order to assure them ownership of their accomplishments.

    These are the kind of parenting challenges I find interesting. BUT, taking a fresh look at this discussion in the morning, I feel like adding… This is fine-tuning, not something I believe parents (or educators) should worry, stress or feel guilt about!

  16. I agree there too…(and I apologize for the sticky keyboard typing…and typos…still trying to get a 4 yr old’s mishap completely dried out!). No one should over stress about:). I love these parenting challenges also, but the fact that we are here indicates that we CARE about those things for children. Getting the word out to families that NEED direction and modeling is of greater difficulty:(. Corey – I also agree that there are SOME negative behaviors that we can, and should, ignore. Not in all situations. I refuse to ignore rudeness or lack of manners. My kids ALL know it:) We have five young adults and one 4 yr. old in our family. Our youngest forgot to say thank you for a gift over Christmas and the older kids looked at me and then to their younger brother. He then said…”I’m so sorry; I forgot my thank you!” Classic!

  17. Great discussion. I think an easy thing to misunderstand, as parents, is the difference between PRAISING your child and LOVING your child. Unconditional love is important to express, but CAN and SHOULD be differentiated from unconditional praise. LOVING your child doesn’t mean PRAISING everything she does. In fact, it’s an expression of love to discourage negative, unwanted behaviors, and to encourage the good ones.

    When does it start? Probably by 9-ish months of age, when your baby starts to purposely catch your gaze before throwing her food off her tray 😉

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  19. A question that is motivated by the illustration in Rick’s initial comment: When we praise for “hard work” or doing their best or even for effort, how do we know that they worked hard or did their best? And if they feel or think or know that they didn’t, what does that kind of praise do to them or for them?

  20. Praise and criticism are two sides of the same coin – namely a judgment of someone’s behavior. And that is why it is dicey. External feedback on where a person is can be extremely valuable and give good guidance on where their strengths lie or on how to improve. But with everything there is a skill to it, a time for it, and a time not for it.

    I recommend that parents seek to help a child notice their strengths with questions such as, “Are you glad you got that grade on that test?” I also advocate ‘noticing’ and giving concrete feedback such as, “Wow you’re working really hard on that drawing (paper, snow fort, etc.) rather than out-and-out praise.

    Funny story though – my son when he was about 10 came home and told me about how the teacher told his paper was really good and he asked me if I liked it too. Trying to encourage intrinsic pride I turned it around and asked him if he felt good about it. He says, “Can’t you just say that you’re proud of me mom???” So I say – half joking – “So it would feel good for you if I said I was proud of you.” Exasperated he says – YES! And we had a good laugh as I told him – yes – of course I am proud of him.

    Just goes to show you, as many stated – balance is the key!
    Praise to you Rick for a great topic. And thanks all the other great commentators as well! You are awesome! 🙂

  21. The prevailing self-esteem culture says, “When kids feel good about themselves they do good things.” And so parents praise in an effort to boost their child’s self-esteem. However, as my friends at Hyde School propose, “When kids do good things they feel good about themselves.” This worked for me… literally, as we went through the family-based character development program at Hyde.

    If most of what we do is praise accomplishments and talents, kids end up with a false sense of their worth. Their sense of self comes from without. What happens when those (mostly parental) voices of praise are no longer there? They don’t really know who they are. The ‘you’re so smart, good, talented’ can become a burden, not a help.

    Self-esteem is an inside job. Doing good, productive, worthwhile things is what builds strength of character. Making the effort and failing (the real, dreaded ‘f’ word) builds character and self-worth. It’s the picking yourself up, learning from mistakes, and problem-solving skills that develop the skills necessary to become a competent and compassionate adult.

    That’s not to say that parents should never praise. However, the focus ought to be on praising the effort and qualities that helped the child reach a wonderful outcome.

    Most parents I speak to agree that their ultimate goal for their children is for them to become independent, caring adults. If this is so, we parents need to back off and let our kids experience all of life — the achievements and praise, as well as the challenges and consequences.

    Ultimately, nobody can give you self-esteem. You have to grow your own. It really is an inside job.

  22. I just found your website and have really been enjoying reading through some of the backlogs, and I stopped on this post because it reminded me of a post I was reading recently on a blog by an educator of the gifted. I can’t find the post anymore, but she was commenting on how likely it is for gifted children (or “students whose brains are wired to exceed in school settings”, as I like to say) to receive undeserved praise. That is, I think praise is valuable when it’s limited to recognizing achievements that took extraordinary effort from the child.

    I found your story about Mary and Martha particularly poignant. As a formerly gifted child myself, I can’t remember the number of times I received empty compliments about being “smart” when I was really putting next to no effort into my schoolwork. Funnily enough, I dropped out of college too.

  23. I’ve thought about this one a lot. I have seen both sides be harmful when extreme and found a good balance between them in the classroom, gymnastics coaching, tutoring, and at home..
    So… as a kid my father was concerned that praise might make me arrogant. The result was that he rarely praised me, and if he did it came with a heavy dose of what wasn’t perfect yet. The result was I felt I could never do anything right, and that I would never be okay unless I was perfect (which is of course impossible). Granted, it gave me a lot of motivation to be perfect, but at the same time it made me feel like I was never good enough and often just made me give up because I knew I never would be. I ended up feeling like I wasn’t worthy of love generally unless I was perfect. Not good. I don’t think I felt okay with myself not being perfect until my late twenties. I can’t say I recommend the extreme little-to-no-praise situation.
    On the other side I have tutored kids who get nothing but praise. Worse, the parents take away anything that might be “too discouraging” (which really meant anything difficult). Bad move. I saw two responses to this- super low self esteem and inflated self esteem in specialized areas with complete avoidance of anything they might not be instantly good at. In the first case praise happened so often that the kids didn’t believe the parent. They could see they were better or worse at something, but the parent always said everything was great. They could also see that the parent would take away harder things, which just made them feel like they couldn’t do it- which they probably could have with a little work. These kids also had a hard time with challenging tings. They would just say “that’s hard” and expect it to be taken away. Not good.
    In the second case the kids were told “you’re a natural” at x thing very often. So they were very proud of that thing they were good at, but reluctant to try anything they weren’t “a natural” at. The attitude was that being good happened naturally, not through work and practice, which is often full of mistakes and less perfect work. It also meant they weren’t willing to step outside their comfort zone with their “natural” talent because if they made mistakes that might ruin their reputation.
    So… the balance I found was with teaching kinder-gardeners. Almost always throw in one constructive comment, tell them if they slip up, but pad it on both sides with praise. I think it’s called a “compliment sandwich”. There was a week I had coaching gymnastics when suddenly all my classes were unmanageable. It wasn’t weird weather or holidays, so I thought I must be doing something wrong. Usually my classes were attentive and eager to please, but they were all sullen and disruptive. Then I realized my praise ratio was off. Usually it was about 3 praise to one criticism, but it had gone 1 to 1. I changed the ratio back and they were great again. Interesting. This ratio is also recommended by marriage counselors for couples. It helps us feel we are doing something right, but there is more to learn. It also means that because people don’t feel shot down, they are more open to hearing ways to improve. They know you mean what you say when you either praise or criticism, but with the praise they aren’t made to feel worthless or incompetent. It helps them hear both praise and criticism better.
    On a side note, I have a special formula for kids who are disruptive for attention. Ignore all negative behavior as much as possible. Ignore the kid entirely during negative behavior as much as possible… but as soon as you see the slightest good behavior (perhaps much less than you would praise in another kid) draw attention to it and praise it. With whatever thing they are learning still do the 3-1, but look for good behavior to praise, especially at points they might be disruptive. Let them know they can get not just attention but praise by behaving well. It works really well, and as they come around you can treat tone it down. This works really well with little kids, but if you do it in a more adult way with teenagers (and even adults actually) it works.
    Positive reenforcement is an incredibly well established winner for behavior modification. A psych class at my college secretly decided to test the principle on their professor and was actually able to get him to stand in the far left corner of the room after only 3 days by looking more attentive when he got nearer the spot and less attentive when he moved away. It works. What doesn’t work is using it no matter what the behavior is. Then it isn’t reinforcing anything- it’s just white noise.

  24. .I think the problem lays in the definition of praise. I think there is a confusion between praise and encouragement. Children need some praise. Children need loads of encouragement. The above comic is a good illustration of this. The mother says, “Great, your hard work has paid off! Can you see how this is different from, “you are such a good violin player.”? In the first comment the mother is building the child’s self esteem and sense of accomplishment by linking the reward with how the daughter got there. This is allowing the daughter to build her worth and her confidence on solid bricks of accomplishment. The second statement builds the child on empty and collapsible boxes. The only result from this is pride, and shame always fallows pride. (Proverbs 11:2)
    Harvard Business review did a study on the proper praise to criticism ratio at 5.6 praises to one criticism, But it did not differentiate between encouragement and praise. An argument could be made, however, that because the were highly effective teams, the praise was probably based on accomplishments, which is encouragement.
    Some parents think that 5.6 praises to 1 criticism is a bit high. I would challenge these parents to watch and hear their children more. I would also encourage them to just start encouraging. I think they will find that goal is attainable.
    Our children are our largest responsibility. Let’s learn how to grow them healthy and lay a foundation so they can strive in the way they should go..

  25. Greg, the distinction between praise and encouragement is useful. AND an important component of whether the praise has a positive or negative effect is the motivation of the praiser. If the praiser is praising for the purpose of managing or teaching the child, it can have negative side effects. If the praise is simply an emotional outburst, involuntary and totally sincere, it is sends the message of unconditional love and admiration, and that is great for the child. However, the child needs to strengthen his/her reality-testing mechanism by getting feedback directly from the results of his/her action/decision. That is what builds their self-confidence–“I did this; this was the result; that’s interesting; I will try again.”

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