The Dark Side of Praise and How To Avoid It


We live in such “praizy” (praise and crazy) times it is important that we recognize the ill effects of too much praise on our children. How many times do we hear “Wow, good job”, “You are so clever”, “That’s an amazing painting, “You are a such great artist”. “I am so proud of you”.

Phrases full of praise like these are used so frequently that they almost lose their meaning. Children then become dependent on them in order to feel good about themselves.

“If we’re going to bring out the best in people, we, too, need to sow seeds of encouragement” – Joel Osteen

“A child needs encouragement like a plant needs water” – Rudolph Dreikurs

What’s the difference between Encouragement and Praise?

  • Encouragement means: to put courage in, to inspire
  • Encouragement makes one feel good about oneself and therefore believe in oneself as it comes from within – it is an internal motivator
  • Encouragement helps build self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Encouragement focuses on how you get there ie. on the effort, improvement, journey and process
  • Praise means: to speak highly of, to commend, to glorify
  • Praise tends to focus on the end result
  • Praise is positive judgment coming from the outside – it is an external motivator
  • Praise does not build self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Praise makes one feel good in the moment but the effects of it are temporary
  • Praise is only one person’s opinion
  • Praise is conditional
  • The over use of praise fosters dependence on others
  • Praise motivates praise and becomes addictive. It can motivate people to do things just for the praise and loose sight of the journey or process
  • Praise can almost be seen as a form reward
  • Praise can create pressure to perform

Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. a researcher from Stanford, who has studied the effect of praise on students found that students of every socioeconomic class were not immune to the inverse power of praise, it hits boys and girls – the very brightest of girls especially (they collapsed the most following failure). She also found that frequently praised children get more competitive and become more interested in putting others down in order to get ahead themselves.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman authors of “Nurture Shock”, conclude in their chapter on praise, that perhaps by not telling a child that he or she is smart leaves it up to the child to make their own conclusion about their intelligence.

Jumping in with praise is like jumping in too soon with the answer to a homework problem – it robs a child of the chance to make the deduction for themselves.

Encouragement – A Whole New Language

How do you do it?

  • Focus your attention on the task rather than the person
  • Think about “noticing” as it can sometimes make it easier to avoid judgment and evaluation
  • Notice the process rather than the end result
  • Focus on effort and improvement, strengths and assets
  • Separate the deed from the do-er (still encourage the child but not the misbehavior)
  • Ask your child to demonstrate how they did something – it is a wonderful way to encourage them
  • Ask your child for their help – it is a great way to encourage them
  • Let your child know that you have faith / trust in them to work something out for themselves but make it clear that you are there for support / help should they need it

Examples of encouraging statements

  • “I notice you put a lot of effort into ……………”
  • “You have certainly improved since…………”
  • “I see that you used a lot of the color blue in your picture, can you tell me about it?”
  • “I really enjoyed hearing you play that new song on the piano”
  • “How do you feel about it?”
  • “You must be really proud of yourself”
  • “We love you, we do not love that behavior”
  • “You can help me………”
  • “That was really helpful”
  • “Let’s try it together”
  • “I see you made a mistake, mistakes are okay, it’s how we learn. What did you learn from it?”
  • “Keep trying, don’t give up”
  • “I think you can straighten this thing out for yourself but if you need help, you know where to find me”
  • “I can understand how you feel but I am confident that you can handle it”
  • “I notice how hard you worked at this. I really admire you for your persistence and for not giving up”

(Adapted from articles by Dinkmeyer, Johnson, The Adler Centre, BC)

It is not necessary to completely eradicate praise from our vocabularies but if we can learn to encourage more than we praise, we will then give our children a better chance of developing self-confidence and self-worth thus empowering them to feel more capable, counted and courageous.

“Respect is an attitude we can model and teach, encouragement is a skill we can learn” – From Parenting Young Children.

As far as learning a new language goes, this is an easy one, the difficult part is trying to praise less! When acquiring any new skill, the more you practice, the better you get. I encourage you to practice using this language. You could put a list of these encouraging statements on your fridge to help remind you. If you have any questions on this, I would love to hear from you.

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