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Praise: a problematic behaviour management strategy

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Praise: a problematic behaviour management strategy

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Our society has almost exclusively moved away from any physical punishment of children in the name of discipline. This is excellent news. Scotland, and the Channel Islands making “smacking” against the law, and Wales’ full ban to come in in 2022. Catch up England. Furthermore, many parents now recognise that shouting, shaming and most punitive corrections are, at best, ineffective behaviour management strategies. At worst, these punishments are actively harmful in both the short and long term. Many parents aim to keep interactions with their child positive, consequently reward and praise are “go to” behaviour management strategies. By praising the good behaviour we hope to promote that behaviour, and eliminate ‘bad behaviour’. There is a problem though. I know, I too was once the person who cried, “if I don’t have those, what do I have?”.

​Listen up, it will be ok.​ This article will take you through why reward and praise can be problematic. My next article will talk to you about how to avoid those problems. We wouldn’t leave you without a leg to stand on! In fact we’re actually going to talk to you properly about how motivation works. Motivation making your child likely to do what you want, and most importantly, making them want to do what you want, for their own reasons.

But praise works, right?

thumbs up praise

Psychology has shown that external rewards (stickers, money, love and praise, etc.,) can be effective at motivating short-term behaviour change. However, for some people they don’t work at all. For everyone else, they’re only ever effective in the short term. In the long term they can create a need for external motivation that is harmful. So, if you need your child to do something fast, and immediate compliance matters more than their long-term motivation, self-esteem, and life goals then rewards can be a helpful parenting tool (for most children – not all).

I am not being obtuse. Those long-term things are always important but sometimes, keeping your child safe and healthy right now definitely comes first. It’s about balance, know when to use your tools. Using rewards, including praise, regularly to train your child to behave how you want long-term (discipline), doesn’t work. So what are the consequences of using praise and rewards as your main parenting tool?

The consequences of praise and reward:

  • The child will require ever increasing (and more valuable) reward to continue doing the same behaviour
  • The child will usually cease performing the desired behaviour when the reward goes away
  • The child’s desire for the item used as a reward increases (for example, think about money). Or the child’s desire for any external reward (not the specific item) increases overall
  • The child’s ability to self-motivate decreases in all areas, not only behaviour. For example, academic effort because learning is enjoyable or interesting tends to drop. Instead a child may want rewarding for doing well, and without reward feel there is little point in working hard.
  • The child becomes easier to manipulate, and not only by you, in the future.​

Some argue that, as adults, we’re rewarded for our work through payment; therefore it’s fine to establish this in our children. I promise you that’s an entirely different situation and what appears to be happening with paid employment, isn’t what it seems. (That’s another blog for another day).

Back to the point. One of the “rewards” we use with children is praise. As well as creating all those issues listed above, praise can cause a whole host of its own issues.

“Praise, like penicillin, must not be administered haphazardly. There are rules and cautions that govern the handling of potent medicines – rules about timing and dosage, cautions about possible allergic reactions. There are similar regulations about the administration of emotional medicine.” (H. Ginott, 1965)

Problematic praise:

1. Using generic phrases

Using generic praise phrases, such as, “Good kid!” or “Well done!” we encounter a number of new issues:

good job generic praise
  • The child often has no idea what behaviour was being praised; the behaviours we try to promote aren’t the ones that are reinforced.
  • In many cases, the child has no concept of what it means to be ‘good’ in each situation; I’m not sure I do actually.
  • We’re modelling some strange social behaviour around gratitude here. Often when we say “good kid/job” we mean is “thank you”. However, we expect kids to thank adults appropriately! Next time you go to use one of these phrases, check whether “thank you” fits better.

2. Praising results

Many studies have shown that praising someone for their results, can lower motivation to strive as hard in the future. Carol Dweck’s famous experiments, that influenced her work on growth mindset, showed children who were praised for achievement in tests, did worse in subsequent tests. They did a lot worse than peers who were praised for their effort to achieve their goal. Children who believed they were inherently smart tried the least hard unless they received recognition of their hard work.

3. Praising talents or fixed features including physical attributes

We all want to tell our children they are wonderful, beautiful geniuses right? It is so tempting. However, praising an aspect of a child that they have no control over can have some seriously negative consequences. There are two common responses to receiving praise for a natural talent. Either they tend to become cautious with their ability, not wanting to fail or fall from grace; or they become arrogant, failing to work to master their talent, and becoming upset when they don’t succeed. Intelligence is one of these features and an important one. Presenting intelligence as something someone either has or doesn’t have can be damaging for everyone.

Similarly, I’d advise (I don’t use the word advise lightly) avoiding all praise that relates to people’s physical attributes. This is really difficult because the media constantly comments on and judges appearance. That is why it is so important. We cannot change our height, or skin colour. Children need not be worrying about whether their shape or size is conventionally “beautiful”. I think we could be less focused on it as adults too. Can’t we find something else, something more interesting, to talk about?

4. Praising too much

Parents were once told to lavish their children with praise to “build their self-esteem”. Unfortunately evidence shows that it does exactly the opposite. Praise can often create an adult who cannot function without being told that they are doing well at all times. Their self-esteem is conditional upon being told by someone else that they are valuable. They may work hard, but in the desperate belief that if they don’t earn praise they don’t have value. Self-esteem becomes inherently links to other people’s validation.

Furthermore, praise is particularly problematic when we praise someone for something they enjoy already. The evidence shows that praising someone for doing something they like, decreases their motivation to do it.

Praising too often, or too highly can lead a child to disbelieve you, or cease to value your opinion. You demonstrate that you clearly do not understand what is and is not worthy of praise. They might also start to think you have very low expectations of them, if you are praising them for things that are simple. This can lead children to not only disbelieve you but to disbelieve all praise or compliments about them in the future.

In addition, extreme praise (“that is perfect”) can set problematically extreme standards for your child. Perfection is their aim. As they grow older and more aware, they may avoid challenges from fear of failing to this impossible standard.

5. Using praise around eating, in any way

Now I mean this. In the next blog I’ll give you a load of tips about how to use recognition, rather than praise, and it will be effective. But I am begging you; please, do not use any form of praise, reward, coercion or any other motivator, to persuade anyone to eat more. I get it. When your child doesn’t eat it is really scary. Please, read more of our eating articles, or get support from one of our consultants, or talk to a medical professional instead. Using praise for eating can shape a person’s relationship with food long-term with huge consequences to health; these relationships aren’t easily changed, either. You don’t want your child to feel they earn love by eating, and that is exactly the association it creates.

In addition to these 5 issues with praise, sometimes people use praise in a truly negative way. Examples of this include:

  • Praising someone by putting another person down: “wow, you did much better than them”
  • Comparing siblings to each other; “That’s great, much faster than your brother”
  • Mixing praise with a put down “oh, you put your shoes on nicely….  for once”
  • Adding demand and expectation to your praise “you did it all by yourself, now you have to do it yourself every time”.​

So let’s get positive. What can you do?

child wearing rocket wings, shadow behind shows a real rocket. motivation and self esteem

The key here is to step away from what we know as praise and think about recognition. This will be the focus of the next article. I have been studying human needs in depth for several years now. One of the key human needs I have identified, is the need for recognition. It isn’t necessarily well understood, so follow me to the next article to learn why recognition matters, and how praise tries, but ultimately fails to provide recognition.

 If you need more support in managing your child’s behaviour, please find a local CalmFamily consultant who offers workshops, courses and individual sessions.If you love what we do and want to change people’s lives, starting with yours, check out our training. You will get to spend a few days with us in training like nothing you have attended before.​

Recommended1 recommendationPublished in Calmer discipline with teens, Calmer relationships, Child discipline, Toddler discipline
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