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Are You Harming Your Children Through Praise?

Jeremy Fink, LCSW, provides psychotherapy to adults, children, adolescents, and couples and is the Director of The Dynamic Counseling Center.  He has extensive experience ...Read More

Praising your children for a job well done is thought by many to be good parenting, facilitating social and educational success and healthy self-esteem. In fact, in a study by Mueller and Dweck, 1996, 85% of parents polled believed that praise was necessary to make their children feel smart. And, faith in the self-esteem movement has convinced parents that praise, encouragement, and constant positive affirmation improves self-esteem, resulting in raising “successful” and “happy” children. What if I were to suggest that praise and encouragement might actually be harmful to your child? This suggestion may likely sound unreasonable and traducing of traditional child-rearing and educational practices; however, I advocate that under certain circumstances, praise can be damaging to the development of your children and may actually thwart their success and experience of happiness later in life.

There are two fundamental problems with praising children: one is that praise is an extrinsic motivator (coming from an external source, as opposed to intrinsic motivation that comes from within), and two, praise fosters a dynamic of conditional parenting and can, under certain instances, be classified by children as unloving behavior by the parents. Let me explain the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation: intrinsic motivation is unconscious; it functions in the brain at a level beneath language, and has developed evolutionarily, modified through learning and experience and capable of guiding us towards some preferred outcome or need. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation is solely dependant upon language and can be used to guide or direct behavior from an external source such as commands or statements of expectations.

Intrinsic motivation is usually superior to extrinsic motivation, because people are more likely to do something they enjoy rather than performing some undesirable task guided by some external goal. Indeed, extrinsic motivation just does not work long term; to use Pavlovian terms, the animal gradually “unlearns” and behavior eventually becomes extinguished. As most parents can attest to, behavioral techniques that guide children towards desired outcomes may be initially successful: however, these eventually fail and lose luster, the original behavior returns or “shapeshifts,” emerging in a different way. Exploitation of the child’s need of parental approval is actually done out of convenience for the parent and is therefore ultimately ineffectual. We must understand that there is a negative correlation between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation; that is to say that when extrinsic motivation increases intrinsic motivation decreases and the converse. For example, the more verbal bribery and praise parents use on children, for perhaps good table manners, the less your child will be (intrinsically) motivated to use good table manners. They will have little to no desire to have manners for any other reason than to gain external approval. This example is not merely limited to polite behavior.

According to Social Psychologist Carol Dweck of Stanford University, praise for ability or intelligence may lead children to adopt a performance goal orientation, which becomes their primary motivational aim. Consequently, a focus on performance can have a negative impact, engendering a vulnerability and helplessness when faced with achievement setbacks, often resulting in negative feelings and thoughts about themselves, causing children to sacrifice opportunities for learning and growth in order to avoid the risk of making errors (Elliott & Dweck, 1988). In other words, challenges and learning are rejected in favor of seeming smart and receiving praise (Mueller & Dweck, 1998), and when immediate achievement is not attained apathy, depression, or anxiety may ensue.

In his book, Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn writes that praise exemplifies the idea of conditional parenting and it represents the polar opposite of unconditional love. In other words, if a child is praised for doing well, the message that may be received is NOT “I love you,” but rather “I love you for doing well.” Dr. Mary Main, a U.C. Berkeley researcher who studied under Mary Ainsworth, one of the founders of Attachment Theory, developed the Adult Attachment Inventory (AAI), a protocol for determining attachment style. In the protocol one of the classifications of unloving parental behavior is pressure to achieve during childhood. Pressure to achieve consists of parents who push their child to succeed, and are concerned with performance and achievement (such as grades or behavior) to the extent that it causes the child to feel insecure about and within the parent-child relationship (Main, personal communication, 2009). What happens is that the attachment relationship between parent and child becomes distorted and hinges upon achievement. As a result the dynamic created between parent and child becomes contingent and conditional upon the child’s achievement rather than an unconditionally loving relationship. In sum, not only does use of praise risk serious setbacks to motivation, interest, and initiative, it can also impair a child’s cognitive and emotional development and sense of security, affecting relational capacity, attachment, and overall mental health.

As a parent your intentions are most likely to encourage your children for doing well and to make sure that they know you love them. But, the message that you send and your intentions for sending it are not as important as the message your children receive (Kohn, 2006). Donald Winnicott an English pediatrician and psychoanalyst encouraged parents to be “good enough.” By this he meant that parents should not be striving for a generalized perfection; rather, parents should respond to their children the best way that they can in an attempt to meet their child’s developmental and emotional needs and to be available for repair when inevitable misses in the relationship occur. The “good enough” parent is able to reflect upon and respond to the specific needs of their children, as each parent-child dyad will consist of its own specific way of fitting together relationally (Bacal, 2011). Hence, praise and evaluative language will be used and received differently by each child and parent. In this sense, even psychological theory becomes too generalized and fails to explain exactly what is going on within the confines of each specific parent-child relationship. However, this is why it becomes imperative to explore the relationship between you, your child, and praise.

One way to achieve this is through what Psychologist Peter Fonagy has termed reflective functioning or mentalization. Reflective functioning or mentalization is the capacity to understand or grapple with the mental states (thoughts, feelings, desires, beliefs, and intentions) in the self and in another. Exploring the meaning of another’s behavior is a precursor for a child’s ability to label and find meaning in experiences. This ability underlies the capacity for mood regulation, impulse control, self-monitoring, and the experience of self-agency (Fonagy & Target, 1997). Arietta Slade, 2006, of the Yale Child Study Center, comments that reflective functioning or mentalization plays a crucial role in the development of a healthy parent-child relationship and engenders security of attachment. Reflective function begins by parents wondering about the children’s internal experience rather than focusing on their behavior, and reflecting this stance of wonderment about the children’s state back.

The next time you have the impulse to praise your child ask yourself: is what you are about to say what your child needs to hear or is it more about what you need to say? Is it for them or for you? Reflection instead of praise, or even just paying attention to what the child is doing and showing genuine interest in their activities is more effective and has better results than mere praise.

Keep Reading By Author Jeremy Fink, LCSW
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