So let’s say you’re “open” to the idea of not using any punishment or praise with your child(ren)… My guess is, with any sincerity, you will find it easier than you now think possible to switch from auto-piloting through various threats of and/or actual punishments to processing through the issue — asking questions, listening, and discussing — working with your child(ren) to sort out problems that arise for you and fulfilling as many of everyone’s needs as possible. Changing habits around praising your child(ren), however, may be a bit more of an uphill battle — for the whole family.
We parents will all have our own reasons for this, to be sure, but I bet we all share some reasons as well. When it comes to praising, the action itself can feel so much more innocuous than teeth-clenched threats of spankings or “an eternal time-out!!!”. We look down at these little gems of ours with their big gleaming eyes, so proud of something they just did, and we want to celebrate! We want to whoop and holler and do a dance of ecstatic joy when our little baby walks for those first ten steps. And likewise we want to be able to celebrate and share in all the triumphs that our children have along the way to growing up. We want our kids to know we love them. We want them to know that we see them performing their latest feats for us. We want them to know we believe in them and their abilities. We want them to know for certain that we are proud of them. And we want to encourage them to give their best to every endeavor. Of course we do — that’s part of what being a parent is all about, right?
The trouble is, we often innocently cross the boundary between celebration and coercion. We often move from sharing in the joy, to pushing for repetition, excellence and mastery. We often carry on praising in order to control the child’s future behavior. And those movements interfere with the natural system that otherwise governs the child’s motivation, learning, practice, and development. With too much, or insincere praise — as defined by the child, not the parent — the child begins to second guess the meaning of such praise, the value of the opinion of the one relentlessly praising, and/or the value of the activity itself; in addition to losing trust in the heavy praiser, who is seen as judgmental for only praising certain things, and/or as not truly loving of the child, but of the action the child does instead.
Alfie Kohn does a fantastic job of collecting and distilling the research in this area in Unconditional Parenting, and even more thoroughly in Punished by Rewards, and the data is crystal clear: children who are rewarded or praised for performance in an activity (even in activities of the child’s own choosing) become less motivated to continue in the activity than their peers enjoying the activity with neither reward nor praise; they’re also less likely to want to continue the activity once the praise or rewards cease; less likely to perform as well at the very next task they are given (in part due to anxiety lest they not perform well enough to warrant further praise or reward); and less interested in trying any new activities (again, not wanting to risk a poor performance); their self-image becomes more doggedly attached to what and how well they do, rather than who they are; and pretty much all further motivation becomes attached to the idea of reward instead of interest in the task, or even the pleasure of the task. And as Kohn relates in Unconditional Parenting:
… researchers have found that children who are rewarded for doing something nice are less likely to think of themselves as nice people. Instead, they tend to attribute their behavior to the reward. Then, when there’s no longer a goody to be gained, they’re less likely to help than are kids who weren’t given a reward in the first place. They’re also less likely to help than they themselves used to be. (my italics)
That pretty much says it all doesn’t it? And it is exactly what I was intimating above when I referred to how quitting praise can be difficult for everyone in the family — not just you. You’re kids are naturally driven to look to you. As I’ve said already (enough times to be annoying to the regular readers), our children are bio-designed to take their cues from us: whether they are watching to see what we’re modeling, following our lead with their movements, expressions and perspectives, or watching to see how we respond to their actions. We can respond in any number of practical ways to our child(ren)’s behavior — and there are examples of humans responding very differently to the same baby activity in varying parts of the world. For example, we in the West respond to baby cooing with encouragement and interest, even palpable delight. In other parts of the world, however, such infantile noise-making is ignored, or even hushed as quickly as a cry. And to further prove the point, the infants respond such that Western babies tend to talk sooner and more vigorously than their peers whose early babblings were discouraged. So even our teeny little infants are looking to us to see how we respond to what they are doing, and in turn respond to our responses. And if we train them to look to us to reward or praise them for their “worthy” actions, then that is how they construct their understanding of how the world works. That is what they come to look for, and expect in return for “a job well done” — at the expense of wanting to do the activity, as well as, the pleasure of the activity itself.
The bottom line is this: if you want your child(ren) to be kind for the sake of being kind — do not reward the kindness!!! If you want your child(ren) to excel at any activity — do not goad, or reward, or praise the excellence. If you want your child(ren) to subscribe to certain “preferred” behaviors — do not bribe with gold stars, or coerce with loaded praise.
And for those parents out there who have become used to flashing some praise or reward to get your kids to do what you want (or even what the kids themselves want or need), or you who have innocently gotten in the habit of praising your children a lot in hopes of being encouraging– I can empathize with your plight. Speaking as a praise convert myself, I can attest to the difficulty of changing the auto-response, “Good job, honey!” into something as equally celebratory, and better capable of expressing my unconditional love (let alone whatever information I want to communicate concerning what happened).
Here’s what I suggest:
- First, watch your language! It’s easier than stopping the impulse to cheer when your kid does something wonderful. With some thought, your words can also be made more effective at encouraging the child to pick actions that you or others might prefer. My favorite example is saying “please” and “thank you”. Parents always do the prompting thing, and/or heap on the praise when they want their children to perform these pleasantries. Whereas, our daughter Echo, at 19 months said “please” and “thank you” appropriately and more often than other children we knew who were five times her age — and without ever being prompted or praised for such, as the other children had been. We only ever modeled these things to Echo, and let her know a couple of times when she had correctly employed them that people enjoy being treated in a polite manner via these expressions. In essence, we let her notice us and others doing it a lot, and we noticed her doing it as well. That’s all. We didn’t need to come up with a lot of words to do that, we didn’t need to coercively praise her, and we didn’t need to give her anything more than the information (via our actions and our few words). I’ll give you more about choosing what to say further down…
- Second — as much as you are able — leave your child(ren)’s intrinsic motivation alone. If you want him to be able to find things that interest him, and maintain interest in the activities he attempts, then you have to be willing to let him find ones he likes and let him go for it with his own motivation — without trying to propel him via rewards or praise. This might also mean you have to let go of wanting your child(ren) to be good at what is only important to you. For example, you will notice that no matter the reward or praise — your teen is by no means guaranteed to have the same aesthetic for her room as you, nor is she likely to enjoy cleaning it to your standards just because you bribe her. And by the way, she is actually more likely to help keep her room looking more as you would prefer if you don’t try to bribe her, but instead just talk to her about why it matters (both to you and her) that the room be more tidy. You’ll get even further if you are also willing to listen to her about her preferences, but that’s a different post…
- Another thing to watch is your intention. Why are you saying what you are saying to your child? Is it because you want him to know you saw him do that thing he just did. Well you can say, “Wow! Look at you!” or “I saw you jump up there!” or “You were really working hard at the track meet!” or “Hey, I noticed you picked up your room a bit — thanks a lot, I appreciate you doing that…” Perhaps what you are really trying to let her know is that you love her. Tell her that instead. Perhaps you are really trying to say, “Boy I sure like(d) it when you… because…” Then say that. Tell your kid(s) what you really mean instead of flinging another “Goood boooy” or “Great job!” in there. What you are saying will be clearer to your child(ren) than vague praise — meaning s/he will have a better grasp of the information you want her/him to have as well as a better understanding of what is preferred for the future. As with the “please” and “thank you” example above, we gave Echo information about how people feel rather than praise for the action, because we want her to have a fully developed emotional intelligence to help guide her toward empathetic living rather than a desire to gain some reward for kind behavior. She now knows not only how to express the formalities of some polite behavior, but she knows about the feelings involved as well, both for her and the person sitting across from her in the interaction. And she tends to want to offer the former to people because of the latter. Praise, rewards, prompting, threats, and punishment, due in the largest part to the distracting nature of each, all fail to actually deliver the message we are most trying to communicate to our child(ren) in the moment. If your intention is to give a message — try just giving it — it is as remarkably more effective as it is more pleasant than just doing something to your child(ren) to try and reproduce certain behaviors.
I hope the above gives you a sense not only of the strategies I am suggesting, but also more about the frame of mind I find most successful in parenting. We don’t have to try to trick, or train our kids to do right things. We don’t have to threaten, or bribe them to have cooperation. Such methodology is appropriate for canine obedience school, but neither appropriate nor, as it turns out, effective for teaching our children. Rather than trying to figure out what to do to them to make them do what we want, we have the option (at least) of working together with our children to help ensure we all get as much of what we want and/or need as possible.
We made our choice based on which was more like adult life (since that is what we are raising them to be, and how we want them to learn to interact), cross-referenced that with which feels better to us and these little people we love so much, in addition to the list of things most parents want at the top of this post. It’s been a long process of learning what to do with ourselves, but the choice itself was a simple one.
Be well, loving mothers and fathers, wherever you are.