“You are such a good helper!” Sounds wonderful to say AND hear, doesn’t it? Praising a child when he or she does something that makes you happy, feels good. Your child will probably start to glow and for a moment, feel really big and good about itself.
Then how can something that feels so right, be actually ‘bad’?
In How to transform a mindset without falling into the praise-trap I stated that praise does more harm than good and that it’s a form of manipulation (what?! I’ll explain it later, so stick with me for a few minutes). In this article, I’ll elaborate more on this to help you understand how harmful praise is, especially to children.
Danger #1: It can kill motivation
When children do things they enjoy, like playing the piano, the reward for doing it is in the act itself. They play the piano, because they enjoy doing it. They’re intrinsically motivated to play. But then, something happens.
We, as adults, start interfering this natural process. We feel the need to praise the child, for doing something it feels natural to do so. Our “you’re such a great piano-player” comes with a catch. We think we’re encouraging a child to continue its play, but we’re in fact killing the vibe. We’re putting attention to something a child might feel natural to do. Now, it doesn’t feel so natural anymore. By emphasizing it, we’ve turned it into something extraordinary.
Imagine someone telling you “you’re such a great cook” and repeating this over and over again. It might seem nice at first. (Finally, someone enjoying your family meals!) But then, you start to feel pressure. Every meal needs to be as good as the last one, or you might lose your title. You’re feeling judged every time you’re preparing dinner. Something you’ve enjoyed doing or did as a normal daily ritual has become stressful. You might expect praise with every meal or you will start to doubt yourself. “Have I lost it? Am I not a good cook after all?” You’ll start to lose the will to cook. You’re no longer doing it because you enjoy it, you’re doing it because it’s expected of you.
And if you decide you’re done and you will only eat take-out meals from now on (which I would never recommend, but for different reasons) everyone will tell you what a shame it is, since you were so good at it.
Danger #2: Losing self-confidence
With praise we kill intrinsic motivation and natural curiosity. And also very important: we make others addicted to our judgement. No longer will the child trust in itself to do what feels good, it will look at us to know what to do, to see what’s expected of him (or her), to know how to FEEL.
“Do you like my drawing?” or “do you think I’m a great painter?” might seem like innocent questions, but they actually tell the child has lost its self-confidence. It needs our reassurance in order to feel good about itself. No longer can the child draw or paint because she enjoys is, she now needs to know if you approve of the outcome. Your approval and judgement has become more important than relying and trusting on herself.
Danger #3: Forgetting the learning process
Praise like “you’re such a great painter” or “what a nice drawing” not only harm the intrinsic motivation and self-confidence, they also interfere with the learning process. They either stress a (fixed) ability, thereby contributing to or reinforcing a fixed mindset, or they focus on the desired outcome and forget the whole process of getting there.
The label “good painter” or the outcome “nice drawing” have now become more important than the act of doing itself. The child no longer enjoys the process of doing, of learning. It will no longer feel the need to learn more, to grow in its work. It now only feels satisfaction with a good outcome, that is, the expected outcome. No longer does the process of doing and learning matter, no longer will the child enjoy doing. Now, the only thing that matters is: winning. No matter what. If it needs to cheat to get there, it will. If it needs to become a different person, it will. If it needs to paint the same picture over and over again because the child knows it will get your attention and approval, it will. If it doesn’t go as hoped, if it experiences a little setback, the child will become frustrated and sad.
The real reason behind praise
It’s good to ask ourselves: why do we praise? What is our real motive for praising someone? Is it to express gratitude? Or is it to guarantee the same behavior in the future?
Take the example of your teenage son doing the dishes, because he wants to help you out (Yes, this happens!). You could praise him for being a “good helper”, hoping this will incline him to help you again in the future. Your real reason for praising him, is then control or manipulation. You’re praising him in order to ensure this same behavior IN THE FUTURE.
However, if you really just feel grateful for him helping you out TODAY, you’re both better of by simple saying “thank you for your help” and “you doing the dishes for me has saved me time and stress”. It doesn’t matter if you son will help you again some other time, you’re just happy he did it now. If you leave it to that, chances are he will probably do it again 😉
Now let us know what you think! What are your thoughts on this article? Did it leave you with questions? Please leave your comment or question below.