Should Parents Praise Their Children?

In today’s post, I would like to return to a question that is controversial among parent educators and a source of confusion to many parents: Should parents praise their children?  In recent years, many thoughtful writers on parenting have argued against the use of praise. Alfie Kohn has been the most influential advocate for this point of view.

Kohn presents several reasons why the use of rewards, including praise, may be harmful to children.  In Kohn’s view, when parents praise children (when we say to them, for example, “Good job!”), these statements often convey to children that they are loved “conditionally” (that is, only when they behave the way we want them to).  He believes that, in most instances, praise is used as a method of control, for the benefit of adults, not children.

Kohn also argues that praise undermines a child’s intrinsic motivations and her confidence in her independent judgments.  Our praise, he believes, calls attention to our judgments, rather than a child’s inherent interest and pleasure in what she accomplished.  He warns that frequent praise may therefore create in children an “addiction” to praise – a hunger for external approval, and a long-term sense of insecurity and inner pressure.  Children become, in this way, “praise junkies.”

A Different Perspective on Praise

I would like to offer a different understanding of praise.  In my view, a child’s need for praise and approval from admired adults is not an “extrinsic” reward. Tokens and money are extrinsic rewards.  Praise, like a smile or a gleam in our eye, is different.  It is a deeply intrinsic human need.  If we think of praise in this way – as a basic need, not a “technique” for raising obedient children – our understanding (and our advice to parents) fundamentally changes.

Praise is ubiquitous in our adult lives. No matter how self-reliant we become, the opinions of others (especially the opinions of people we look up to and admire) matter – to all of us, throughout life.  When we have worked hard and done a good job, we want (and need) people to tell us that we’ve done a good job.

This summer, I spent a week at a music camp in Canada for amateur musicians of all ages, and praise was all around.  Musicians, young and old, were told, “Good job!” (or, as the Canadians like to say, “Super!”) when they worked hard and played well. This praise was certainly not a form of control. It was encouragement – and its effect was encouraging.

Why should children be different?  Don’t children deserve the same recognition and encouragement that we do, as adults?  When a child draws a picture, builds a block tower, practices an instrument, cooks a meal, works hard on her schoolwork – when they are proud of what they have done, they look to us, not only for our interest, but also for our approval. Children want us say, “Wow, I really like that.”  And we should.

From the perspective presented by Kohn, praise is like sugar – something that children like or crave, but is harmful to their long-term health.  I would suggest that praise is more like an essential nutrient.  It is certainly not the only nutrient or the most essential one – enthusiastic interest, patient listening, providing solace and comfort when children are disappointed and sad, engaging them in the solution of problems – are even more essential.  But we cannot do without praise.   We need it especially in moments of discouragement and self-doubt.

For this reason, when we praise our children, we do not create an addiction to praise.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Children are more likely to become praise junkies – children who seek and need constant praise – in the absence of our praise and approval.

Kohn’s objections to praise raise an even more fundamental question about our role, as parents, in the lives of our children. Approval and disapproval, praise and even punishment are unavoidable in raising children. These experiences have their place in the behavioral development – and inner life – of every child.

Even as we value children’s autonomy and independent judgment, we cannot escape our socializing responsibility.  All responsible parents want to promote pro-social values in their children. I feel proud of my children when I see them spontaneously offer comfort to another child who has been hurt or when they have worked hard on a difficult task.  I want to support these values as part of my children’s character.  When I tell them that I am proud of them for the good work they have done, this is perhaps a form of control, but it is a reasonable – and inescapable – one.  It is not conditional love.

Finally, there is a very practical reason to praise children. As child and family therapists, we learn an elementary lesson from our daily clinical work:  Praise often begins to turn troubled families around. Reward-based behavioral programs are highly effective in helping arrest vicious cycles of criticism, anger and defiance in parent-child relationships. I make use of these behavioral interventions often in my work with families – not just to promote good behavior, but to help restore and strengthen more affirming family relationships. Increased cooperation from children relieves parents of frequent frustration and resentment, allowing them to engage more positively in other ways with their children – and with each other.

Of course, there are nuances to the question of when and how parents should praise their children.  Carol Dweck’s research, for example, has highlighted the importance of praising children’s effort, not their intelligence or talents. And some parents may, as Kohn suggests, use praise as a substitute for genuine interest and engagement. (In this case, praise may have all the dangers Kohn warns us of).  It is also possible to praise children too often; like most good things, praise can be taken to excess.

Still, children need praise, just as we all do. Especially, our children need to know that we are proud of them.  A child’s inner certainty that her parents are proud of her is a sustaining influence throughout her life – a deep and lasting form of emotional support.

On the question of praise, I therefore offer parents the following advice:  Praise effort, not innate ability.  Be warm, genuine, enthusiastic and specific in your praise.  Let your children know that you are proud of them.  And don’t be afraid of praise.

This post was originally published on Huffington Post, October 19, 2013.