Sunday, October 14, 2012

Beyond Praise - Expressing Gratitude

Adam gets creative with a cape.
There seems to be a widespread assumption that praise is always a good thing. It is not uncommon for teachers to be told to praise a child every day. Some are even evaluated on how close they come to this standard. Many books on parenting encourage praise and don't mention any negative effects of using it. 

Yet there is now research that shows that using praise can be unhealthy. What can be unhealthy about praising kids or others? 

Dependency on Praise for Approval
Well for starters children can become dependent on praise and not be able to self-motivate themselves. Alfie Kohn in his book Punished by Rewards shares a story of a teacher who would say, "Good job! You really helped me out today!" to two boys who she concluded were insecure. Yet their desire to please her grew and they were no closer to achieving the confidence and security she was hoping to build. Their mood depended on whether she approved or did not and they felt better about themselves when she did.

Kohn also writes that children may end up not being as creative and relying more on adults to make decisions for them as a result as well.

Kohn states, "Praising children for the way they behave, meanwhile, gives them no reason to continue acting responsibly when no one is likely to say nice things to them after they do so, and it gives them neither the skills nor the inclination to make their own decisions about what constitutes responsible behavior."

It is true that not all children react the same way to praise. This may have something to do with their background and personality. For instance research shows that girls do not respond favorably to praise and are actually less interested in doing the work that they are praised for doing after being praised. This may have something to do with how often women are complimented for being nice or sweet that they have come to realize that the praise is just an attempt to control them or get them to do something.

Internal Sense of Compulsion
Other children may respond favorably but lose a part of themselves in the process. Kohn writes in Punished by Rewards, "Some children will internalize that voice of adult approval so that it continues to govern their behavior when there is no authority figure in sight. This is sometimes regarded as evidence of successful socialization. But, as ... others have pointed out, some kinds of internal control raise troubling questions. If internalization occurs as a result of controlling children's behavior with praise and other rewards, it is merely likely to replace an external sense of compulsion with an internal sense of compulsion. There is a world of difference between this and the experience of making one's own decisions and judgments."

I believe the internal sense of compulsion that Kohn is talking about can lead to perfectionism, people pleasing, codependency, a tendency to criticize others or fix others, etc.
So many times we may say things like, "Good job!" and not give more information to the child. Though, I want to say that it is not the end of world if we do this, it is good to be mindful of how often we do it and to try to offer other information that may be more helpful because if we don't children or others may fill in the gaps.

For instance, one parent told his son "Good throw!" when he threw the frisbee. The child threw it again and it only when half as far and he said,"I am a bad thrower."

What We Can Do
So what can we do instead of praise? Here are four practical suggestions. 

1. Don't praise people for what they do but instead share what you like about what they did (be specific). Instead of saying, "You are such a good painter" or "That is a really beautiful painting" you can say, "I really like the colors you used and where you put the butterfly on the tree."
2. Avoid phony praise and competition. Try to be sincere in doing the above and not just offering praise to get someone to do something. Sometimes people will change the tone of their voice or dangle praise by pausing and saying, "Who is going to sit quietly and with their legs crossed first?" Then they may say, "John is sitting so nice and quiet." This makes the praise a reward and competition. Eventually kids and/or people either give up on getting the praise and feel bad or see the manipulation in the process.
3. Express gratitude. Instead of offering praise share what someone specifically did that enriched  your life and share what need of yours was met. This may sound like, "When you stayed after class and put away the markers and took the trash, I felt grateful because it offered me help and support."
4. Express your sincere excitement about what they did. You can say, "Wow! That was something. I really liked your play. When I see you playing baseball and hitting the ball I am excited and delighted to see you meeting your goals."
The idea with these four suggestions is that the person being spoken to is intrinsically motivated and not extrinsically motivated. Another thing that is no longer present in all of these suggestions is that the person speaking is no longer in a role of judge over another. They are not evaluating the painting, artist  or behavior. They are expressing gratitude, sharing observations or their excitement.

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