Unpacking Praise

Posted by on Oct 16, 2010 in Most Popular Posts, Practical Parenting | 13 comments

“We have a cultural notion that if children were not engineered, if we did not manipulate them, they would grow up as beasts in the field. This is the wildest fallacy in the world.”

Joseph Chilton Pearce

Last week I summarized an article by Alfie Kohn on praise, and then tried to add some clarifications that I thought to be important. Judging by some of your responses, I need to try another pass at it this week. I am going to do this in a very exaggerated manner to make the distinctions clear. As regular readers of my blog know, I do not usually like to reduce the complexity of life into black and white, but I think it may be helpful to start out this way with praise.

Let me paint two scenarios for you:

  • Timmy is five years old and lives with his mom and dad who love him very much. Timmy’s parents make their feelings about his behavior known to him on a near constant basis. When he does something they disapprove of they wear it on their face, their body language, and in their tone of voice as they tell him in no uncertain terms that their relationship is being threatened by his “bad” behavior. And just as readily, when he engages in “good behavior” they tell him, “Good job Timmy! Keep it up. You are being such a good boy today!” Timmy’s inner world is perpetually filled up with a controlling inner critic that evaluates every thought, feeling, and desire that crosses his mind. He is full of self-doubt and spends a lot of his time doing things specifically to get approval from his parents. However, the praise he does receive is not really sinking in. It’s not enough. It’s not fulfilling to him. The other day he put his shoes on himself for the first time. His dad saw him do this and said, “Good job Timmy! What a big boy!” Timmy — though he was initially excited about this accomplishment — half mumbled, “Big deal. Lots of kids my age can put on their shoes.” He seemed irritated with his dad and did not make eye-contact with him. In the context of conditional love and strong parental control, this “Good job!” is experienced as sugar-coated manipulative praise and is increasingly causing more and more defensive reactions from Timmy.

“If i wish to take my child for a ride or even if I wish to hug and kiss her, I must first be certain that she has earned it.”

Stephen Beltz, How to Make Johnny WANT to Obey

  • Gabriel is also five and lives with his mom and dad who also love him very much. Gabriel’s parents show him through eye contact, body language, and tone of voice that they accept him unconditionally as he is. They love him and make that love known whether he is being helpful to his sister or is throwing a ball in the house (a “no-no” that his parents are quick to point out when he forgets). They give him lot’s of space for his own feelings, desires, and ideas. They give him room to explore and be a kid. The can feel that Gabriel is increasingly being able to control his impulses and genuinely feel that his heart is in the right place, even if he doesn’t always engage in “perfect” behavior. When his behavior is out of line they simply let him know that he needs to try it a different way, and if he needs help they readily offer their support to scaffold his emerging capacities. When he succeeded at putting on his shoes for the first time, his dad said “Good job buddy! You did it!” Gabriel smiled widely, radiating delight in his new-found capacity and joyfully sharing his triumph with his dad. “Good job” in this context is not felt as manipulation, but more like a momentary celebration. We might call the experience of this “praise,” simply enjoying-with celebration praise.

As I have tried to emphasize in previous posts, it’s all about context. “Good job!” is just a phrase. What is the relationship between the person saying the “good job” and the kid? What is the intention behind the praise and how is it communicated? If the relationship is experienced as very controlling by the child (as in Timmy’s case), chances are that the “good job” will not be felt as simply enjoying-with celebration praise; it will likely feel more like sugar-coated manipulative praise which comes with certain intra-psychic and behavioral consequences. If, on the other hand, you have provided plenty of unconditional love and space for your child to emerge as their own person, saying “Good job!” will not be a problem at all. Most (if not all) of you reading this blog fall into this latter scenario and don’t have to worry about any praise that rolls of your tongue.

With these distinctions in mind, let’s now look at some of the specifics of why we may feel that we need to offer praise. The three most common reasons people feel that they have to offer praise are

  1. To enhance their child’s performance
  2. To get them to engage in, and continue with “good behavior”
  3. To enhance self-esteem

Unfortunately, the notion that we need to “reward the good to keep the good going” is NOT supported by the data. In fact the data show that sugar-coated manipulative praise leads to exactly the opposite effect. The data also show that praise used as a reward actually diminishes performance on a variety of tasks.(Please see the end of this post for a summary of the data I could find on these effects.) Now I want to be clear that “rewarding the good to keep the good going” and “praising performance as a reward” are different than offering specific feedback that helps our children know that they are on the right track as they practice mastering the skills needed in this lifetime, or comments that simply let them know that we are enjoying watching them emerge as competent, autonomous beings in their own right. Again, it all comes down to how the child experiences what we say and that rests squarely on the general nature of our relationship with them as well as the timing, situation, and intentions behind our praise.

“Just sit there right now. Don’t do a thing. Just rest.

For your separation from Being is the hardest work in the world.”


Take Home: If your relationship with your child is grounded in unconditional love and space, “Good job!” is not experienced as sugar-coated manipulative praise and you need not worry about sharing in the natural enjoyment that comes with the expression of your child’s emerging capacities. But if you are trying to use praise as a reward to get them to engage in desirable behavior, to perform better, or to boost their self-esteem — and your child experiences this as the control that it is — there are certain downsides that you should be prepared to deal with.
Here are a few suggestions for how to keep praise benign:

  1. Avoid phony praise; it will almost always backfire once the child catches on.
  2. Be specific about what was done well. Generalities — especially when it’s about promoting an image — like “You are so smart!” or “You are the best!” cause more problems than specific praise like “You ended this paragraph with a strong conclusion.” Praise that is useful to their on-going quest for mastery has beneficial effects (as does praising effort and other things that are within the child’s control and that they feel they can improve upon as opposed to “fixed-image” praise).
  3. Make praise a private affair and especially do not use it to set up competition with others. This isolates the praisee (now the one that “needs to be knocked off their high-horse”) and makes everyone into rivals instead of potential collaborators. This also leads people to judge their own value by comparing themselves to others which leads to perpetual insecurity.

Try: Become an observer this week — a fly on the wall — and see if you can feel the difference between sugar-coated manipulative praise and simply enjoying-with celebratory praise. How can you tell the difference? Is it something in the praiser’s tone of voice, body language, or eye contact in the moment? Did something about your sense of their relationship with the child leading up to the praise contribute to your sense of how this praise might be experienced by the child? Was their something in the way the child reacted to the praise that tipped you off? Simply observe without judgment. This exercise is simply to learn more about the subtleties of human relating when it comes to praise and its effects. Remember: there is a manipulator and an unconditional supporter in each of us.

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And for the Science-minded parents, here are a summary of some of the data on punishment and rewards, and a look at where praise fits in:

* A meta-analysis of 128 studies on extrinsic rewards and their effect on intrinsic motivation found

  1. Rewards given to get people to engage in, complete, and perform better on various tasks lead to a 30-40% diminishment of intrinsic motivation for those same tasks on average.
  2. This effect was more negative in children as compared to college students.
  3. A positive effect of verbal rewards with college students was NOT found to be significant in children (Further analysis of the positive effect of verbal rewards found that if the information was useful, specific, informational feedback that it was most helpful, and that if it was perceived as controlling that it became harmful to intrinsic motivation. Also noted was that ‘expected’ verbal rewards were as harmful as rewards more generally, which is of course the case in homes where manipulative praise predominates.)
  4. Intrinsic motivation supports cognition, persistence, and the experience of well-being and this all boils down to the common denominator of effects on self-determination and self-regulation.

* A meta-analysis of 150 “praise” studies found that use of praise correlated with

  1. Increased risk-aversion (take less chances)
  2. Lack of perceived autonomy

and liberal use of praise correlated with

  1. Less persistence
  2. Signs of un-assuredness in class
  3. More likely to drop a class than take a chance on getting a bad grade, and harder time picking a major in college

* Two scholars reviewing the data on praise and school performance found that praise did not correlate with classroom gains. (Poorer performance has been consistently found to correlate with praise whenever the task involves complexity or creativity [vs. simple mindless tasks]. The three reasons for this effect are likely 1. Pressure to keep up the “good work” 2. Less intrinsic motivation for the task 3. Less likely to take risks.)

* A study done with young children found that young children frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be less generous on an everyday basis than other children who were not.

* A study done on 400 5th graders showed a distinct difference in kids who were praised for their effort vs. “being smart:”

  1. After doing a fairly easy puzzle and being praised, they were offered the choice of taking a harder puzzle or another easy one. 90% of the kids praised for effort chose the harder puzzle while less than half of the “smart-praised” kids chose the harder puzzle.
  2. In a test that was way beyond their capacity, the “effort-praised” kids shoed more engagement and persistence.
  3. When given another of the easier tests the “effort-praised” kids scores went up 30% and the “smart-praised” kids went down 20%

* I will not take on the issue of self-esteem in this post as it is very complex and not yet clear to me. But here is an early hypothesis: Self-esteem that needs to be built is a superficial and more fragile version of the Inherent Value that a person implicitly feels when they are raised in a field of unconditional love and spaciousness.

Thanks to Alfie Kohn for all his clarifying work on how behaviorism diminishes our children’s maturation in the long run.


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  1. Nurture Shock — Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
  2. Unconditional Parenting — Alfie Kohn
  3. Punished by Rewards — Alfie Kohn
  4. Drive — Daniel Pink
  5. Deci,E.L., et al, “A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation.”Psychological Bulletin, 125, pp 627-668 (1999)
  6. Baumeister, Roy F., et al, “Does High Self-esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness or Healthier Lifestyles?” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol 4, no. 1, pp 1-44 (2003)
  7. Brophy, Jere, “Teacher Praise: A Functional Analysis.” Review of Educational Research, 51, pp 5-32 (1981)
  8. Hitz, Randy, and Amy Driscoll. “Praise or Encouragement? New Insights into Praise: Implications for Early Childhood Teachers.” Young Children, July 1988: pp 6-13
  9. Grusec, Joan E. “Socializing Concern for Others in the Home.” Developmental Psychology, 27,  pp 338-42. (1991)
  10. Dweck, Carol S., “Caution–Praise Can Be Dangerous.” American Educator, vol.23, no. 1, pp 4-9 (1999)


  1. Wow. You’ve give me a LOT to think about, here. I am a big praiser. I praise all of the time. It’s something I didn’t get much of as a child and it’s important to me that my children know that I think they are wonderful, special and smart (because they are). That said, reading this and the article that you apparently broke down last week (I didn’t see your post but I did come across that article) have made me aware of some bad habits that I have.

    If nothing else, I think I just found and answer to a problem I’ve been having with my oldest. Hmm. Praise is undeniably a good thing, yet now I can see how it can be used in a way that isn’t appropriate. I will have to start thinking more carefully about how and when I praise. I’m definitely guilty of “fixed-image” praise, though I had no idea how damaging it could be.

  2. Thanks Chris for the clarity of your examples. I send clients to your blog when parenting issues emerge in my dialogue with them and always receive gratitude in return.
    Sending metta, Annette

  3. Good stuff here. Having studied facilitating creativity, this brought to mind an older post of my own related to praise and creativity (http://bit.ly/9GCjcy).

    “Just sit there right now. Don’t do a thing. Just rest.”

    …better than praise of any stripe. Namaste

  4. Dear Chris,

    Thanks for your articles and excellent examples. Would it be at all possible for you to email me the journal references for the studies you mentioned, especially the reviews and meta-analyses. I am doing some research on this and am finding that a search of articles on data bases like Psycinfo simply unearths more behaviourist studies.

    Kind Regards


  5. maybe the best overview and clearest explanation i’ve come across. thankyou for your work.

  6. Thank you – you’ve distilled Kohn’s work so nicely. I’m glad to finally have a resource to send to others when discussing this as it is rare that someone else will make the effort to read one of his books.

  7. good stuff to read – challenging for me as i work on discerning the difference in my own heart and actions – thank you.

  8. Thanks for all your insightful comments!
    Kate – I added the specific scientific references to the bottom of the post for you. I found Buameisters article as a PDF and it’s linked for ya. Enjoy.

    Enjoy your kids, and enjoy growing up with them!

  9. What an excellent post. Thanks so much to the Organic Sister for pointing the way to this wonderful blog. I am excited to become a regular reader. I recently read a book (Chants of A Lifetime by Krishna Das), where the author talks about his family dynamic and how his parents’ love was doled out or withdrawn based on how he acted. This really resonated with me and I have started taking a hard look at my knee-jerk reactions to my 17-month-old son: smile and say “good job” when I approve of what he is doing, frown and say “no, no” when he is not. I’m looking forward to trying the specific techniques outlined above and I hope to raise a child who knows deep in his heart that he is unconditionally loved.

  10. I have been noticing lately that I all too often correct my kids behavior, and I fear I come across as loving conditionally. This is how it was when I grew up, and I do not want to foster that kind of relationship. Thank you for reminding me and for giving me glimpses of the alternative.

  11. This is an awesome post. I am lucky to have learned about Alfie Kohn BEFORE my son was born. My husband and I both decided to keep praise at a minimum. We do have family members who use praise a lot with our son, but I know that my son’s idea of mine and my husband’s relationship with him is what is most important. If my son accomplishes something new we say “You did it” or “Do you like that?” or “Is that fun for you?”. You can see the “success” look on his face and how accomplished he feels when he does something new. Mainly my son just wants us to watch him do a new thing, and celebrate in his successes. I think that is true for any child, but once you begin to criticize (praise or not) children can lose that “hey look at me mommy/daddy” thing. My son is now potty trained at 16 months and he did it WITHOUT praise and without punishment. When I told my mom I potty trained my son without praise she asked me “How do you do that?”. I wasn’t able to explain it to her very well so I just told her “I don’t know. It worked though”. Also, when my son has a potty “accident” I say to him “Oops! Your pants are wet now. Let’s clean you up”, and I am blessed with a husband who does the same thing.

  12. Dear Chris
    I must apologise for my belated reply. Thank you so much for the references you added to the end of your article, particularly the Baumeisters article in PDF. I am enjoying following all that up.
    Kate McMaugh

  13. Hi Chris 🙂 I just found your website doing some research for a Demand Media article on behaviorism. I am glad I did! I am also grateful for your expansion on praise. I wrote about it a while back at a friend’s site because of the confusion I experienced when I was first introduced to the work of Alfie Kohn. Here’s the article if you’re interested… http://www.hobomama.com/2012/03/to-praise-or-not-to-praise-is-that.html

    I agree that intention is most important with anything we do as parents. Having information like you’ve outlined helps us be clear with our intentions. Take care, Amy


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