By Anya Kamenetz

Parenting these days is patrolled by the language police. Sometimes it seems like the worst thing you could ever say to a kid is “Good job!” or the dreaded, “Good girl!”  Widely popularized psychological research warns about the “inverse power of praise” and the importance of “unconditional parenting.” The incorrectly phrased, indiscriminately doled out pat on the back can, we learn, undermine a child’s inner motivation to learn and achieve, promote a “fixed mindset” that will cause her to shrink from taking on any kind of challenge or effort, and maybe even destroy her sense of self worth.

The anxiety is such that parenting blogs circulate actual word-for-word scripts for parents to use in such difficult situations as the sidelines of a swim meet, or after a music recital. There are long lists of forbidden words and phrases, too.

What are these researchers really getting at? Are the particular words we use to talk to our kids so important? And how do we convey positive feelings without negative consequences?

Process Praise

Some of the most prominent psychologists behind all of this talk about talking are Stanford University’s Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset, and Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester, whose research the education author Alfie Kohn relies heavily on in his books including Unconditional Parenting. Both Dweck and Deci are theorists of human motivation, but they emphasize very different perspectives on praise.

Dweck’s studies have focused on the effects of “process praise,” which means praising effort or strategy: “You must have worked very hard on this painting!” This is opposed to “person praise,” which labels people with phrases like, “You are really good at painting!” “You must be a genius!”

The idea is that reinforcing effort contributes to children’s beliefs that they can get better at things if they try, the vaunted “growth mindset.” But praising traits feeds the belief that talent is fixed, which makes kids less willing to take on new challenges that might expose them as less naturally able.

Most of Dweck’s research has focused on process praise given by strange adults interacting with children in a research study environment. But in a recent study, her team coded videotapes of parents praising their one to three-year-old children. They found that the greater use of process praise with these very young children predicted their later desire to take on new challenges, which in turn influenced these children’s math achievement seven years later, in fourth grade.

“Kids are thrilled by the idea that they can grow their brains through their effort and strategy,” Dweck says. “Praising strategy and focus and improvement gives them actionable information and a reason to try hard.”

Praise and Personhood

Simple, right? Not so fast. Writers such as Kohn have condemned all praise, including Dweck’s “process praise,” as little more than “sugarcoated control.”

The idea is that parental praise is manipulative, intrusive, and undermines both children’s intrinsic enjoyment of what they’re doing and their own internal sense of whether they are, in fact, doing a good job or trying hard.

Kohn cites Deci and Richard Ryan, and their colleagues including Guy Roth and Avi Assor at the University of the Negev in Israel. All of them have found in a series of studies that when parents express any kind of “conditional regard,” it harms young people’s developing autonomy, causing them to feel pressured to achieve, to feel shame if they don’t, and to suppress negative emotions and experiences. Conditional regard includes positive reinforcement, the practice of offering praise in exchange for desired behavior.

“If you tell your kids, ‘You’re a good boy for taking out the trash,’” they may feel that if they don’t take out the trash, they’re not worthy of your love,” says Deci. “You need to express that you love them and approve of them no matter what they do.”

Verbal rewards are a pretty central weapon in the parenting arsenal, especially when it comes to academic achievement. Deci and his colleagues found that offering your warmth and approval in exchange for academic achievement does work, in the sense that it causes young people to be more invested in trying to do well in school. But it’s a devil’s bargain that backfires emotionally in the form of “maladaptive self feelings.”

The controversial recent book The Triple Package, coauthored by “tiger mom” Amy Chua, purported to explain why certain ethnic groups tend to outperform others in education, occupational status and earnings. Two of the three traits the authors describe are a superiority complex accompanied by insecurity—a pretty good description of what researchers say can be the outcome of too much conditional parental positive regard.

Praise vs. Feedback

Parents are not perfectly controlled Siri-like bots but human beings with positive and negative emotions that are going to arise in response to specific actions by children. So is there any way to channel and communicate your sincere feelings to your kids without doing lasting harm? Surprisingly, despite their differing views on praise, Dweck and Deci tend to agree on the right course of action.

When I ask Dweck about the “sugarcoated control” idea, she says, “I basically agree that we overpraise.” Her intention in talking about process praise is to redirect this impulse more constructively. Instead of mindlessly kvelling over every fingerpainting or math test — or even just telling kids to “try hard!” — her recommendation is to get more involved with what a kid is doing. “Appreciate it. Ask questions. If we see that a child is using interesting strategies we can ask about them. Talk to them about their thought processes, how they can learn from mistakes.” Encourage your child to actively seek both positive and negative feedback in order to grow and improve.

Deci says something similar. In addition to assuring children of your continuous love and regard, “You want to understand what your child is thinking and feeling, to be respectful toward them. Asking questions is a far better idea than giving praise”—or criticism for that matter.  The idea is to support the development of a child’s autonomy by taking his perspective.

If you’re on the sidelines at a soccer game, it’s easy to pull out some pre-scripted phrase like “I love to watch you play!” or “You’re a natural!” It’s harder to watch your kid so you can tell her, “When you made that pass in the second quarter, I could see that you’ve been practicing your footwork a lot,” or to take the time to ask, “What was your favorite part of the game?” and really listen to the answer.

Providing helpful, detailed, encouraging feedback and appreciation requires paying attention to what kids are doing, and listening to what they are saying. This takes time and energy. Dweck says what she sees all too often are time-pressured parents who reach for a quick sugar fix instead. “We are a praise-addicted culture. I don’t think parents are going to stop praising.”

The Difference Between Praise and Feedback 27 March,2014MindShift

  • Andrew

    Kohn may be right about No Praise…if all we are is learning animals. But we’re also relational beings and praise, and the attendant idea that you’ve been pleasing to someone, are part of our make up. Hard to imagine a relationship that would be worth having when both parties are relying on “their own internal sense of whether they are, in fact, doing a good job or trying hard,” and not responding to the effect they’re having on the other person.


  • fanas

    Yip. Now I can understand why 20% of the population are on happy pills. They have nobody praising them for any good they do or have in them. Crazy world we live in nowadays.

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  • James

    Oh, so many angles to comment on. Adults can correct the problem in many ways: learn to praise themselves, and learn to focus in on the purpose. For children, I’d think focussing on questions would be the key. How do you think you did? How would you like to do that next time? How have you improved? What did you do? What else can you do? All that.

  • Pt Taken

    Humans respond to praise; this is why the complement is such an integral part of our interactions across all cultures. At the end of the day though, we are all here to make life bearable for each other and an occasional pat on the back can make a huge difference, sometimes between life and death. That said, we tend to paint with an overlarge brush: low-fat diet for everyone, college for everyone, and now praise for everything and everyone. Problem is we all all possessed of wildly varying metabolisms, aptitudes and psychological needs. The same praise that would reassure one child may very well deflate the ambitions of another. But our tendency, in the case of the current issue, shower with deluges of praise rather than sprinkle judiciously seems to have created this current generation of youth who won’t get out of bed for anything less than a trust fund. Moderation in praise along with everything else would seem to be the order of the day.

  • Jane

    I felt sad reading the conclusion – Do people really need to be told to be involved with and respectful toward their own children?? I teach K – 3 at the moment, and I make a great effort to be involved with all of my students’ work, to be specific, supportive, encouraging, and, when appropriate, reproachful or critical. I rarely offer feedback without first engaging a student in an exchange about their progress. It’s often instructive for me to hear students’ thoughts, ideas, feelings, what they find challenging, what they enjoy, and why.

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  • Praise is a direct correlation to performance but it can only work if the benchmarks are reasonable and parents are truly able to ‘measure’ the performance properly. Kohn has pinched the perfect points here that most parents don’t even realize. You’d be surprised to know how parents are so blank on information about their kids. This requires patience and understanding to connect which sadly turns out to be a task too tough for some parents and teachers.

    How the children thinks? what sparks their interest? why do they react to something the way they did? These are questions parents are supposed to observe keenly so that they can find out the bases on which they should praise their children rightfully. Otherwise parents are unintentionally just killing in children the motive to succeed, which will hit them back later in school or college.

  • gericar

    I think this kind of article is hilarious…. Maybe everyone shouldn’t have kids…. I think each couple willing to invest a quarter of a million dollars/kid and the rest of their lives either parenting or being blamed for every word that comes out of their mouths should have a support group of two or three other couples who don’t have kids and are willing to make sure the laundry is done, the house is relatively clean, bills are paid and the grass gets mowed, food gets bought, kids get driven to school and soccer and ballet and band and birthday parties and pajama parties and tutoring and cooking classes not to mention parent’s own full time jobs….. then the people with kids could concentrate on just exactly what to say to little Sophia in every possible situation. Otherwise, kids are just going to have to take pot-luck and a little benign neglect like the rest of the human race.

    • henry ford

      yes. absolutely. parents should just pass on the unthinking crap that they got from their parents with absolutely no effort to incorporate behavioral science into their process … because they are too busy. good point!

      • James

        And yet, does this sort of analysis seem somewhat cultish and maniacal? To suggest that we do irreparable harm to children by praising them, seems out of bounds. Do we need to focus on our internal modes of discipline? Of course. But refusing to speak to our children unless we have a (pseudo)scientifically approved speech would do more harm, or so it would seem.

        • A Teacher’s Perspective

          Coming from a classroom teacher’s perspective, when children are overly praised they constantly need verbal feedback in order to maintain motivation or any sense of drive. It gets to the point that they expect recognition for every little thing that they do. I believe balance is the key.

          • Arlen

            Yeah, because the human race was doing well with raising kids, look at you for example, or our grand parents. But a certain school of thought suggested that “children should be praised and so and so”, and now alas they want to take it back, “not too much on the praises, or do it differently”. If only we could have just respected every human being’s instinct to care and nurture and just leave it to evolve naturally as each situation changes and not force every seemingly genius new idea and get so hyped and overly obsessed by it. The human race was just doing fine, until someone thought he/she is a better parent, just because he/she hasn’t tried being a parent or has but with a different situation. Let’s stop experimenting and analyzing. Let’s just do what we believe is good, learning lessons from the past based on our own experience, trusting our every capacity . Our kids are not guinea pigs, let’s love them. Let’s enjoy our kids and the lives we have with them.

        • Milena

          Speaking as a university professor, getting the kids who got constant praise for every little thing the problem is even worse: without constant outpouring of “Good Job” and “A+’ses” students get instantly demoralized, plunge into anxiety or else mercilessly pester us for grades they don’t deserve. They have NO idea of what good work actually looks like, basically they are like blank slates. I am sorry that this makes parenting “harder” (tho I don’t see how it does really) but over-praising is a real issue that worsens over time and had real and wide-reaching negative repercussions for all.

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  • rcole

    I feel like the “no praise” methods of child raising is just going to create a generation full of serial killers. ” my mom/dad didn’t tell me enough that I was good at anything. I never got the love/Attention I needed as a child, so I’m going to get it here” *stab stab Stab* bad idea folks.

  • Lesley

    OMG I am a mother of five and am now bringing grandkids up. All my kids have different abilities but all know one thing; they are always loved though not always liked. I have always asked how their day has gone, always given praise when due and yes my kids have worked for that praise. Failure at anything had always been seen as a lesson to be learned from and my kids believe they can achieve anything they work at. Eldest 29 youngest 19 grandchild 2x2yrs. Eldest girl got highest grade in maths and has a degree in Forensic biology with psychology, second girl in last year of degree in horse management and breeding, youngest son just finished diploma in fishery management and sports fishing. One lad a full time single dad and the other working as a welder. Hmmmm where did I go wrong???? Oh yeah I parented each child according to their needs 🙂

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  • It’s interesting that the idea that ‘reinforcing effort contributes to children’s beliefs that they can get better at things if they try, but praising traits feeds the belief that talent is fixed’, is contradicted by the research that says when it comes to morality we should criticize specific unwanted behavior, but praise the individual in order to perpetuate wanted

    Meanwhile the idea that ‘when parents express any kind of “conditional regard,” it harms young people’s developing autonomy, causing them to feel pressured to achieve, to feel shame if they don’t, and to suppress negative emotions and experiences’ seems a bit hyperbolic. Are our children supposed to be raised in a vacuum where nothing interferes with their autonomy like some test tube experiment controlled from any outside influence? That’s not to say they aren’t at all an experiment, but what’s wrong with feeling a little pressured to achieve, and maybe even a little shame if they don’t? Isn’t that how they’re going to develop the perseverance and coping skills that they will need?

    And while it is important to development a child’s autonomy and respect his perspective, it is *not* to totally suppress your own perspective, because that will also backfire as it diminishes what is truly important, which is to maintain the utmost integrity with your child: http://t.co/ouF53pw1Qh

    • 10bac10

      There is a difference between “praise” and “encouragement.” Praise is like a blanket put on someone by someone else. It is not about the “do-er,” it is comment based on the judgment of the “giver.” For example, “You did a good job,” is a well intended comment based on the judgment of the giver, but too much of that, and that blanket can get awfully heavy; people can come to rely on it such that they cannot function without it. If your feelings about yourself are based on the impressions of others, it can be difficult to self-motivate without it. Praise is external and non-specific.

      Encouragement is non judgmental feedback and focuses on the efforts of the “do-er.” It references effort rather than outcome and helps build an internal locus of control as the do-er becomes more aware of his/her own capabilities. In swimming, as an example, a coach might say, “Good swim.” It’s nice to hear, but it doesn’t tell the swimmer anything about what made it a good swim. Encouragement provides information about the swimmer. For example, “You kicked all the way to the wall that time! Your arms were right in front of you instead of crossing midline. You finished off your stroke by your hips. How did it feel?” There is no judgment on the part of the coach, but the information provided helps the swimmer understand what s/he did well and can internalize and apply that to the next swim.

      • I’m not sure where this is coming from. Did my comment indicate that some confusion about the difference between praise and encouragement?

        Where do your differences come from? They seem manufactured to me. I think the main difference between praise and encouragement is that praise usually refers to the past (i.e. “good job”) or present (i.e. “you’re doing great”), while encouragement usually refers to the future (i.e. “you can do it”).

        Aren’t both praise and encouragement both external, simply because they come from someone else? Certainly praise can be extremely specific (i.e. “you did a really good job adjusting to a bigger opponent and kicking with the ball of your foot.” – certainly is praise), and encouragement can be very vague (i.e. “you can do it”).

        • 10bac10

          In my opinion, praise has a judgmental quality that stems from the deliverer of the praise – that judgment may be positive or negative.

          Encouragement is a non judgmental observation not qualified by the deliverer. It objectively identifies something observed (to the credit of the receiver of the encouragement).

          Praise and encouragement are both provided and, in that way, external.

          Encouragement is not about the future by my definition. It is in the moment and describes some action or attribute that can be identified and then built upon by the receiver. Encouragement becomes internalized. Instead of “you can do it,” it might be, “that was difficult and you did it.”

          Using your kicking example, which is praise, it becomes encouragement when you remove the “you did a really good job” part and only state what was well done and then leave it to the kid to internalize the thought. Ex: “Ah, I get that I adjusted and kicked with the ball of my foot and that worked well. I’ll do that again” = the realization of a skill.

          I don’t know if this hinders or helps and I do understand the confusion. To me, they are very different.

          • Praise itself is always positive, even though praise may have a negative consequence, but then the same can be said for encouragement. Both praise and encouragement can become internalized, and that is totally up to the recipient.

            I agree that praise and encouragement are different. I never suggested that they were the same. I don’t have any confusion about the difference between the two.

            What I am confused about is your point. What and why are you trying to make this distinction in reply to my comment? Was there some part of my comment that gave you the impression that I was confused about the two?

  • Cathy Knapp

    I had a workshop on exactly this in Sept. Personally, I think it is hogwash! I would feel robotic if I had to stop and reword every bit of praise that I gave to my students. Why is it so terrible to be good at something? My son was able to whip off an amazing essay in an hour because he was gifted…and he earned straight A’s with little work…had I said to him, “Oh you must have worked very hard on that”, he would have seen me as dishonest!
    I can barely draw a stick man no matter how hard I try….I don’t want someone saying to me, “oh, you tried very hard on that” as if it was praise. We can be honest with our feedback and praise. If a student is naturally good/talented at something they don’t need to have a teacher put them in a generic group with everyone else. We are not all the same, with all the same abilities. When you know someone HAS worked hard, then yes, by all means, say so, but if it happens to be good as well….let’s tell them that too! I know I will…new science or not!

  • DRF

    Ha ha ha! Even if parents praise their kids too much, that’s hardly our biggest problem. This article does one thing that most people skip out on, though. Instead of just whining about a problem, the author proposes a well-thought-out solution: ask questions and get involved. That will make the kid feel loved and appreciated without the plus-and-minus of praise or criticism. (Until next week when the next study tells us to do the opposite.)

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  • Steph

    There is no question to the value of positive feedback when learning and developing targetted skills. However I think people have to recognize the time and effort required to share authentic feedback following a task attempt. The challenge really does become how to best incorporate such throughout the school day in a meaningful and timely manner. That’s what research should explore in order to offer relevant suggestions for best practices.

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