“Do you have any questions or thoughts?” I asked the audience.
She was quick to answer, “I’m trying to be positive…but it seems like every time he does something good…and I praise him…the wheels fall off of his behavior. He gets irritable, disrespectful, and sometimes even defiant.”
Quickly scanning the group of around one hundred parents and educators, I noticed about a quarter nodding their heads in agreement. One parent commented, “It’s like my daughter can’t handle anything going well. She sabotages things as soon as I say something like, ‘Great job.’”
Why do so many adults, from so many varied walks of life, say the same thing about praise? “It backfires with a lot of kids.”
What is “Praise”?
Before we pursue this puzzle, perhaps wisdom dictates that we define what we’re really talking about when we use the term “praise.” According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Praise” means, “to express a favorable judgment of: commend.” Examples from daily life include:
- Super job!
- You are so bright.
- Way to go!
- I’m so proud of you.
Two Types of Praise
This type comes from sincere excitement over something a child has done. There’s no ulterior motive. It happens naturally. Most of the time, I encourage people to relax and allow this type of praise to happen. If it’s clear that it makes a child uncomfortable, we can always curb it a bit. Otherwise…don’t worry…be happy.
This type is done by good-hearted people for the express purpose of shaping behavior. The goal is to “catch the child doing something good and rewarding it with praise.” Because many children have finely tuned intentionality detectors, this type is the most likely to backfire.
An Alternative: Notice and Describe
Have you ever read an article that was all about problems but provided no solutions? I do my best to avoid writing those. Before we look at why intentional praise works poorly with many youth, how about an alternative that’s far more effective with many youth?
Notice and describe the behavior without judging it.
- I noticed that you finished the assignment even though it was challenging.
- You did all of your chores without being reminded. How does that feel?
- I noticed that you kept your cool when those kids were teasing you. What was that like for you?
- I noticed that you spent a lot of time today helping your little brother.
- You completed nine out of ten correctly. I imagine that feels really good.
Some Problems with Intentional Praise
Children who feel poorly about themselves usually feel extremely uncomfortable when praised. On a subconscious level they react, “This doesn’t match up. I’m not that great, and I don’t do great things. In fact, I can probably think of a million examples of why this person is wrong about me.”
For many children, praise actually triggers a myriad of negative self-images, all intended to confirm the child’s negative view of self. While no positive, rational person would compel a child to construct a dirty laundry list of all of their perceived failures, this often occurs when a hurting child hears something like, “That’s awesome!” The resulting conflict and anxiety contributes to the difficult behaviors following our attempts to be positive.
Many highly controlling kids have a real problem with other people being happy about their behavior. One psychological characteristic of these kids (and adults) is a zero-sum orientation. In their head, only one person can win: “If my parent or teacher is happy about my behavior, I must be unhappy about it.”
These are the kids who are also wondering, “What do you want from me?” When they experience praise, they feel a strong need to prove that any efforts to manipulate (even if this is not intended by the adult) will not work.
The Pedestal is Slippery
I suffer from this one. When praised, I often find myself feeling a bit panicked. My mind begins to race, “What if I can’t maintain this? What if I fail? What if I disappoint these people who think I’m so great?”
As a child, I learned how to avoid these feelings: Don’t try so hard. Be mediocre. Be a bit resistant. Don’t give adults much to be excited about. When they try to be positive, be a little more negative.
Fortunately, the development of Love and Logic helped my parents realize that all of their loving attempts at praise were actually making things worse. Things began to change when they began to consistently send two messages through their words and actions:
We love you unconditionally.
You don’t have to earn our love, and you can’t lose it.
You get to decide how you feel about your accomplishments.
We’ll just be happy for you.
Thanks for reading!
Dr. Charles Fay