By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
Many parenting authorities will tell you what a great idea it is to catch a child doing good things, and praise him lavishly, and the child will develop self-esteem. In addition, the logic behind praising your child is that the child will think, "Last time I did something good I got some very enjoyable praise and admiration. I want to feel that again therefore I will repeat the good behavior." This is simple behaviorism and it does indeed work that way to increase the desired behavior in the short run. However it comes at a cost. You see, when someone does something that has an intrinsic reward that means that he gets enjoyment out of the thing itself, that intrinsic reward results in ever increasing motivation to do that activity and get enjoyment from it. An example would be a child who loves to read because he simply gets great pleasure out of reading, he will always be encouraged to read more and more for its own sake. However if the motivation is extrinsic, such as praise or rewards, the child is motivated to engage in the behavior, but only for the sake of the reward. His whole mind is focused on the reward or praise and away from the enjoyment of the behavior itself. That's the simple truth, all the research shows that the more a child comes to rely on the motivation of extrinsic reward such as praise, the less he enjoys the activity itself and the more he's depending on the praise. That means that as soon as the praise is not there the desired activity is abandoned with revulsion!
Praising your child? The pitfalls of praise outweigh the benefits!
The bottom line is that while praise may encourage good behavior in the short run, it leads children to totally lose all enjoyment of and motivation to engage in the desired behavior in the long run, and we certainly don't want that.
Praise creates unhealthy other-esteem
But there's another problem with praise. It is a value judgment by an other, and therefore tends to not create true self-esteem, rather it creates the very undesired other-esteem. By praising a child we are saying to him, “I, the adult judge you as good.” That tells the child that he is good, but also that the power to determine whether or not he is so good rests solely in the hands of an other. This puts the child in a very fragile and unstable position because if his sense of esteem is dependent on others, he has no control over others possibly changing their estimation of him, in which case his esteem would be dashed on the rocks. In the inevitable event that he does something and doesn't receive praise, or receives the opposite of praise, his totally dependent sense of self will then be devastated. We definitely don't want a child to be in that position. True self-esteem is just that, esteem that comes from the self only. In order to give a child self-esteem we need to get him to judge himself as good and worthy. If his sense of self is based on his own positive judgment of himself, he will be in a very secure position and not be dependent on the judgments of others, he will be very self-assured. In addition he will be very resistant to verbal mistreatment such as bullying, not to mention peer pressure.
Celebrate and describe
So if not through praise, how do we get a child to himself conclude that he is good and worthy and create true self-esteem? The answer is through celebrating and describing. Take celebrating.
Let’s say a child finishes a puzzle by himself and he's praised, “Good boy, what a great job you did!” The child will think the good thing about finishing puzzles is that I will get pleasant praise after I'm done. That is extrinsic motivation and causes the child to think the enjoyment and satisfaction I get out of doing the puzzle itself is not so important. In addition the child is fooled into relying on the positive value judgment of the other which ultimately has little value because it is fragile other-esteem. But if instead we celebrate with the child his completion of the puzzle: “Yay, you finished the puzzle!” what we are essentially doing is amplifying and joining in with his own personal pride, satisfaction and enjoyment of the puzzle itself. We are actually helping him to increase his intrinsic motivation to engage in such puzzles in the future. In addition we are celebrating and encouraging his own conclusion that he is good and worthy and accomplished, thus creating true self-esteem. Notice after the “Yay” there was a "You finished the puzzle." That is a description, not a value judgment. You are simply stating the observable facts, allowing the child to himself judge how good he is. This is the other technique, describing. Whenever a child does something good, describe in detail specifically what he did without attaching any value judgment to it. For example: "You set the table, you were very helpful to mommy," and the child can judge herself, "I am helpful." That's true self-esteem. Let's say a parent said, “You've been working very hard on those math problems for 15 minutes," then the child will conclude himself "I am doing a good job on my homework." In addition this description has the further benefit of causing the child to increase his or her enjoyment and satisfaction out of the activity itself which is intrinsic motivation and is most likely to encourage the child to repeat the behavior over the long run. You may describe the effects your child’s behavior had on others: “You made daddy feel great by saying thank you,” or “I'm so happy you hung up that towel.” You may celebrate and describe together, “Yay, you got the ball in three times!” sharing in and amplifying his enjoyment and satisfaction and allowing him to create his own self-esteem.
Fortify the parent-child relationship!
Furthermore celebrating good things a child does creates tremendous mutual enjoyment and satisfaction: it greatly strengthens the parent-child relationship. Describing what a child did shows great appreciation and respect, and children thrive on that.
Please be advised that the above represents a parenting ideal and a high level of parenting skill, and no one should expect to fulfill it perfectly or immediately. Rather have patience with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.
Feel free to peruse my interesting blog, or the specialties on my website, download one of my informative free reports or view my video. If you would like to learn more about alternatives to praising your child, and would like guidance or treatment from a child therapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!