An article from Young Children, a publication from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), entitled Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” by Alfie Kohn, discusses research that proves when we are constantly telling a child “good job, or good girl/boy, etc” we may be doing more harm than good. How is this possible? Isn’t praise good for kids? In moderation, like most things in life, praise is fine. Young children desperately seek adult approval. It is for that reason, however, when it is given too often, children come to rely on it and measure their own worth based the adult’s approval. The author of the article uses the example that he absolutely cherishes moments when his daughter manages to do something for the first time or does something better than she’s ever done it before. He tries to resist the knee-jerk reaction to say, “Good job!” because he does not want to dilute his child’s joy of the achievement. He wants to share in the joy, not have his daughter look at him for a verdict. He prefers his daughter exclaim, “I did it!” instead of asking uncertainly, “Was that good?”
The same priciples hold true for rewards as well. The article, Rewards and Praise: The Poisoned Carrot, explains that the idea behind rewards, stemmed from behaviorists who were able to manipulate animal behavior by offering food rewards. They found the same was true when applied to humans as well. The problem with this? They don’t account for the quality of relationship that is so important to the development of young, human, children. Motivation for learning, for helping others, for completing tasks, is greatly affected. Children learn to only work, or only work hard enough, to get the reward. You may argue that rewards work, and your child complies when he has to behave for that cookie. However, realize that the compliance is only skin deep. He’s learned to manipulate his own behavior in order to get the reward. He is not motivated by his own intrinsic feelings to act because its the right thing to do. His motivation lies solely on external factors.
Don’t we want our kids to be proud of what they do? Don’t we want them to behave because they feel it’s the right thing to do? Well then what should we be doing instead!? There are three options Alfie Kohn gives:
1) Say what you saw. “You worked for a long time on that picture! Look at all those colors you used!” or “You did it! You put your shoe on all by yourself. You worked really hard on that.” This lets your child take pride in his/her own work and reinforces his effort. When your child shares with another child: “Look at Bobby’s face. He’s really happy you shared your cars with him.” This helps your child recognize why sharing is good, not how you feel about his sharing.
2) Say nothing. Children are not intrinsically “bad”. If you do not praise him for a good behavior, he will not innately, resort to bad behavior. This is not to say that you should not give your child any attention. If you give them none, they may very well resort to negative behaviors that do get your attention. It means if your child and another are busy building an intricate block structure you can be near them, smile at them, check in with them, but you do not need to be saying “I like the way you’re playing so nicely” to them for every few minutes. Their play is constructive, creative, and positive already. They do not need any external motivation.
3) Talk less, ask more. Even better than saying what you see is asking questions or “tell me about…” statements that provoke thought and encourage language use. “Tell me about what you drew.” “Do you see Bobby’s face? How do you think it made him feel when you shared your cars with him?”
This is not to say that all praise is bad. Genuine, enthusiastic expressions come naturally. When it’s not natural, consider the motivation behind it.