Why praising kids is kind of a dick move — and what to do instead

By now you guys probably know that "heart-centered parenting" — which is the foundation for ParentShift — strongly urges parents to dispose of punishments, threats, bribery, rewards and praise.

All these tactics are damn near archaic, given what research and science have uncovered about child development in the last 100 years. But most parents today still don't know that.

I didn't — that is, until I took a Parenting from the Heart class 10 years ago.

I remember being surprised but willing to change. I threw out punishments and threats pretty willingly. (They didn't seem to work anyway). And I had no problem letting go of bribery or rewards. (I could see how those were extrinsic motivation.)

But praise?

Oh boy, that was tough. I really struggled with the idea that I wasn't supposed to tell my kid she was good at stuff. I didn't quite grasp the difference between praise and encouragement, frankly, and always questioned whether I was using the appropriate words or tone.

But here's the thing I came to understand: The problem wasn't really my words or tone. It was my intention.

Now, to be clear, I always thought I had the best intentions — to show Maxine I loved her, and that I cared about her, and that I knew how capable, talented and wonderful she was.

But you can see how often "I" is mentioned in that sentence. At the end of the day, it was all about me. I wanted my girl to feel great about herself, and I did that by constantly telling her what I thought — rather than encouraging her to discover what she thought. And how could she feel great about herself, intrinsically, when she wasn't given the space to decide for herself whether there was anything to feel great about? Essentially, when I praised Maxine for going on the big slide, or writing a great story, or being good or smart, I was really saying:

  • "Regardless of your own instincts or feelings, it's important to others that you are 'brave' enough to go on the big slide."

  • "Regardless of whether you enjoy writing, keep doing it because others enjoy your writing."

  • "Regardless of whether you feel like you are being 'good' or 'bad' at any given moment, the point is to make someone else believe you're good."

  • "Regardless of what or how you enjoy learning, the important thing is that someone else believes you're smart."

You see the pattern, right? And the problem?

At its best, praise teaches kids to be extrinsically motivated (driven by external rewards) — which is tied to lower self-esteem and increased susceptibility to peer pressure. At its worst, it's manipulative and condescending. Manipulative in that it's a way to get kids to do more of what we want them to do. Condescending in that it lacks any sort of respect for the child at all. "Sit nicely at the table, Mary. That's a good girl." I mean, would you ever talk to an adult you admired like this?

The bigger issue, though, is that praise puts us in control of our children's internal compasses. We are the judge of what is good and bad, and who is smart and brave; our kids are merely the subjects of our appraisal.

And after us? Who takes over then? The better question is: Who doesn't? In adolescence, it's our kids' friends and peers who become their appraisers. Then it's their teachers and bosses and boyfriends and wives and complete damn strangers. If they become writers, it's their readers. If they become actors, it's their audience. If they become bloggers, it's you.

It's not that our kids completely lose their ability to assess things for themselves. But they do develop a stronger-than-average tie to what others think, what is socially acceptable, how others view them.

For those of us most in need of praise, the default becomes:

1. Take an action.

2. Look to see whether others approve.

3. Adjust action as necessary.

3. Repeat these steps for the rest of our lives.

Praise can slip from being a nice thing to a dick move very quickly.

But if praising is so problematic, how do we encourage our kids to appreciate themselves and keep on doing what they enjoy? How do we voice our support and share our genuine enthusiasm? How do we help boost their budding sense of selves? How do we illustrate our vast and eternal unconditional love?

Welcome to the Island of Encouragement.

While used interchangeably in the world at large, praise and encouragement are not the same thing. Encouragement:

  • notices and supports the child’s action.

  • tries to unearth the child’s opinions and perceptions

  • celebrates the effort behind an accomplishment.

  • shows sincere appreciation for child's contributions.

  • emphasizes the journey, not the outcome.

So what does that look like in practice? “Hooked on Praise,” a Parenting article written by Alfie Kohn two decades ago, offered four specific and incredibly helpful alternatives. Every time you find yourself wanting to say "Great job!," try one of these goodies instead.

1. Report what you see.

“You drew a boat!”

“You brought in the groceries!”

“You went on the big slide!”

2. Emphasize the impact on others.

“Auntie was so touched by the note you gave her!”

“That little girl was so happy you bought her lemonade!"

“The dog loves it when you pet her like that!”

3. Ask a question.

“What was the hardest part?”

“Where did you come up with that idea?”

“Will you show me how you did that?”

4. Say nothing.

Show genuine interest, but let the kid do the talking instead. In doing so, you might find out what he thinks — which is what really matters.

Again, it's not about the exact words you choose so much as the intention and implication.

For example, instead of saying, "I'm so proud of you for going on the big slide!" you might just wait a bit and, apropos of nothing, say, "I'm so proud to be your mom!" Instead of saying, "It is so great that you stand up for your beliefs!" you could just say, "You stand up for your beliefs!" Instead of saying, "Good job doing the dishes!" you might say, "Thanks for doing the dishes!" Instead of saying, "You are so smart!" you might say, "You figured that out on your own!"

Here are some other words of encouragement that steer clear of praise:

  • “What an interesting observation.”

  • “You are full of surprises!”

  • “You worked so hard!”

  • “What do you think?”

  • “What part do you like?”

  • “How did you do that?”

  • “It looks like you put a lot of effort into this.”

  • “It looks like you enjoy ___________.”

  • “You do you!”

  • “Congratulations!”

  • “How do you want to celebrate?”

  • “I’ll be cheering for you.”

  • “I’ll be thinking about you.”

  • “I’m always ready to listen.”

  • "I'm always in your corner."

  • “I love you!”

Speaking as someone raised in a family whose love language was praise, I want to be clear: It's not always easy to steer clear of it. Sometimes our joy and admiration spill out in words of approval — that's okay. This is not a perfectionist's pursuit; none of parenting is.

But if you can be aware of the consequences of praise, and keep track of when you do it, you will naturally cut down on it, thus allowing your child's opinions a chance to reign supreme.

And that, my friends, is worthy of some serious praise.