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Child Behavior: Praising children



Too much of a good thing?

Maintaining moderation is helpful in guiding us with many aspects of life, including the praise we sometimes heap upon our children. A generation ago, disciplining children through positive reinforcement became a popular alternative to punishment. Instead of being spanked or sent to his room, a child was rewarded for correct behavior. But research shows that positive reinforcement alone does not help a child internalize appropriate behavior any more than does punishment.

Intrinsic motivation

Children naturally seek out activities and situations that interest them and allow them to demonstrate competence. Young children don’t have to be rewarded to learn new words, ideas or skills. In fact, children who are intrinsically motivated (doing something for the joy of doing it or because they feel it’s valuable) are likely to perform higher quality and more creative work or be better behaved than those motivated by the idea of a reward or praise.

Watch a year-old infant begin to master the art of walking: she pulls herself up, falls, does it again, and takes a step. She falls continuously, but keeps persevering until she masters it, usually with a gleeful smile. The joy of mastery is evident as a reward in and of itself — no external praise is necessary.

Contrary to B.F. Skinner’s theory of positive reinforcement, which suggests that children will perform better when they expect to get something for it, a number of studies indicate that emphasizing praise or special privileges can be counterproductive.

‘What do I get if I do it?’

Rewards may even destroy intrinsic motivation. The fascination with the task may vanish and eventually the child won’t perform the task unless there is some reward at stake. Other tasks will be looked at in this way, as well, developing in the child a “what do I get if I do it” mentality. Unwittingly, we may undermine interest in reading, thinking and creating just by rewarding or continuously praising.

British educator A.S. Neill has said, “It is tantamount to declaring that the activity is not worth doing for its own sake.”

Rewards may encourage children to focus more on the reward than on the task itself – to do it as quickly as possible, with as little effort and creativity as possible. This could be the reason studies find that the more children think about a reward, the more likely they are to choose the easiest possible task. They want the toy, not the challenge.

According to researchers, intrinsic motivation is related not only to achievement but also to self-esteem, cognitive competence (how a child feels about her skills), and a child’s sense of control over this environment. These are areas in a child’s development we are all trying to enhance, not limit.

Praise the effort

Praise and reinforcement do have a place in any parent’s repertoire of disciplinary or motivational tools for their children. Children should be praised for their effort rather than the product of their accomplishments. Children who are praised for their efforts persevere when faced with challenging or difficult tasks. They don’t give up as easily as others. These children in later years embody the work ethic, “it’s not whether you win or lose that’s important, it’s how you play the game”.

Use moderation

By the time a child reaches adolescence, he has probably heard “good job” no less than 5,000 times for anything and everything from putting on his underwear to putting a ball in the basket in his driveway.

By all means praise your children, but first let them know the specific reason why they are being praised and use what’s often called variable reinforcement. Don’t praise or reward continuously — too much praise diminishes the impact and effectiveness of the attention and words. Using the same words like “good job” again and again also reduces the impact they might have on the child and also increases the probability that your child will ignore them.

Praise and rewards probably have the most utility of any motivational, disciplinary, or esteem building techniques that a parent can use. The key to success is using them correctly. Keep it all in moderation!

Paul Schwartz, PhD., is a professor of psychology and education at Mount Saint Mary College.



Other articles by Paul Schwartz