Thursday, March 15, 2012

To praise or not to praise: Is that the question?

This is one in a series of guest posts by other bloggers. Read to the end for a longer biographical note on today's guest blogger, Amy Phoenix from Presence Parenting. Amy brings welcome clarity to the confusion surrounding different types of praise.

Guest post by Amy Phoenix from Presence Parenting

A few years ago a close friend sent me an email titled "Why we don't say good job." Intrigued, I opened it to find an explanation of how praise can hurt kids. Although I could sense truth in the message, I felt a little bewildered. Was I supposed to just stop praising my children? What would I do with the enthusiasm and love I felt for them? What words would I use? I stayed sort of stuck in those questions for awhile.

A couple of years later I trained to become a Parent Talk facilitator with Thomas Haller and Chick Moorman, who blog at Uncommon Parenting. Thomas and Chick are also fans of Alfie Kohn, father and author of the book Unconditional Parenting — the same book my friend highlighted when she warned me of the potential downside of praising kids.

My questions were finally answered. One of the sessions in Parent Talk focuses specifically on how praise and criticism relate to self-esteem, clearly explaining how praise itself is not bad — it's much more about how and why we praise that leads to either potential problems or possibilities.

A child's self-esteem is essentially their sense of self, how they view and relate to themselves. It follows that self-esteem influences how people view and relate to others and the world around them. Since we're all in relationship with each other and our kids look to us and others in their surroundings for an example, the way we communicate with them absolutely does contribute to their self-esteem.

So, is it possible to use praise in ways that contribute to a healthy sense of self? Yes.

Except even the word "use" may point to the most important foundation for anything we do as parents. If we use a tactic as parents to get a result, we may be manipulating our children to get said result. This creates a sticky situation because it may feel frustrating when we don't get the results we want. In the case of praise, it can also lead to a child being dependent on others to praise them so they can feel or do something good. The child's sense of self is affirmed or denied by those around him.

Not so good.

How can we remedy this? Explore and refine our intentions. If you find yourself trying to pour on the praise to get a result, simply notice that tendency and then choose how you really want to communicate. Becoming aware of how praise affects children (and adults) may also help.

Evaluative praise is the type that's come to get a "bad" rap, for good reason. Evaluative praise judges the child, the child's efforts, personality, way of being, or what the child creates. Essentially, evaluative praise puts our judgment on the child.

Examples of evaluative praise may include:
  • That's beautiful.
  • You did great in school this term.
  • Wonderful work on the yard.
  • Great job putting your toys away.
The result of evaluative praise is the child depending on the judgment of others to determine what their value is and how they are doing. Evaluation comes from the outside and may or may not reflect how the child really feels. It is also easy for someone to write off evaluative praise thinking that is just what others think, that it doesn't really matter or isn't true. So it's not building self-esteem, it is detracting from the sense of self by trying to fill it with outside judgment.

If you are now realizing that evaluative praise is a part of the communication you regularly have with your child, don't fret. There are alternatives that allow for a deeper connection between you and your child as well as allow your child to evaluate himself.

Descriptive praise allows you to talk about what you observe with your child without judgment, and leave evaluation up to her. This can include the situation you are witnessing, actions, and accomplishments — basically, whatever you notice. By describing what you observe without evaluation, you affirm what the child is doing or has done while the child gets to decide how she thinks and feels.

Examples of descriptive praise may include:
  • When you were finished, you put the papers in the trash.
  • You used many bright colors and colored back and forth.
  • You picked up your clothes off of the floor.
  • I noticed the dishes are clean and stacked in the drying rack.
  • You stopped before hitting your sister when you felt angry.
  • The bikes are all parked in the garage with plenty of space for the van.
Now, you may feel these statements lack zest. That's only because we are initially used to expressing our enthusiasm in different ways, with different words. One key to transitioning our communication of appreciation for our kids is through holding onto the grateful feeling while we use new words.

The benefits of descriptive praise are limitless, really. Do you think it's more important what a kid hears or what they say to themselves in their heads? Obviously one's self-talk is most important and can be affected by others. Descriptive praise allows your child to develop positive self-talk by noticing what she does and choosing thoughts about it.

This may look like a child saying on the inside, "Yeah, I cleaned up after myself. I can keep things neat," or "I like my picture. It's pretty." The statements the child says to herself stay with her and cultivate her sense of self. Coupled with your enthusiasm, observation, and appreciation, her self-evaluation leads to a healthy sense of self. She realizes she is of value in various ways through self-awareness.

Appreciative praise is your opportunity to pour out the love you have for your child. Honesty is central to praise, and heartfelt appreciation is integral to any healthy relationship. In expressing appreciative praise, we tell our child thank you while we share how their actions impact our lives. The child naturally experiences how he affects those around him in positive ways. Beware of using this type of praise to get a result; let it come from the heart, and you will see how it cultivates a deeper sense of connection between you and your child.

Examples of appreciative praise may include:
  • I noticed the toys were put away, and we can play in the clear space on the floor. Thank you!
  • I appreciate that you did the dishes even though you didn't want to. It helps when everyone does their part around the house.
  • Thank you for touching me gently.
  • Thank you so much for helping with the groceries. My body is sore, and it was nice to lift less this time.
  • Thank you for lowering your voice. My ears appreciate the lower volume.
  • I am so grateful you are in my life. Your smile reminds me of what's really important.
As I transitioned to using appreciative praise more, I sometimes found myself saying thank you before my child did something I asked. My son brought this to my attention and asked that I refrain. When we choose to notice why and how we appreciate our kids, then communicate that, we are sharing genuine praise.

To me, praise equals appreciation. It is going deeply into how grateful you are for the presence of another and sharing it with them. As you transition from evaluative praise, feel free to blend descriptive and appreciative praise together, remembering that it's much less about a definition of praise and much more about deepening the communication and connection you have in your relationships.

Here are a few quick steps to get started:
  1. Notice how you use evaluative praise with your child and partner. Make a list for a week if you'd like, noting a few things before bedtime each day.
  2. Choose to stop evaluating and start experimenting with descriptive praise at least three times each day, increasing as you go along.
  3. Soak up the times you really appreciate your family members. Take it in with all of your senses. Share what you experience.
  4. Combine descriptive and appreciative praise when it feels right.
  5. Notice how those around you (and possibly you, too) start to look to others less for validation of their worth and begin to positively evaluate themselves.
  6. Enjoy the process!

What kinds of praise come most easily to you at this point? How has praise affected your own self-esteem?

Amy Phoenix is a gentle yet direct momma of five, parent educator, and meditation facilitator dedicated to liberating anything that gets in the way of experiencing the peace of the present. She provides resources to relax into life and parenting at Photo credits: Amy of Presence Parenting.


Mama Mo said...

This is an amazingly helpful and insightful post. A friend of mine borrowed Unconditional Parenting after I glowingly review it. She likes the ideas in it, but is struggling with how to implement the change with her six year old son. This information is clear and concise and much appreciated. I'll be passing it on! Thank you!

Unknown said...

Thanks for writing this, Amy, and for hosting, Lauren. I really appreciate your descriptions of these different types of praise, Amy! I know Jaymz and I use evaluative and appreciative praise all the time, but I've never been able to describe it as well as you have here. I will definitely be sharing this post next time we're talking about praise with another family. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I definitely got lots of evaluative praise as a kid, and I think it's fair to say it's a big part of why I've been in therapy for years - my self-esteem is almost entirely dependent on outside praise.
I'm getting a lot better at the thankful kind of praise with my own kids. Of course, I still give evaluative praise, but because of my own experience with this, I try to keep it within reason. It's very hard, though, because it really is what seems to come naturally to me.

Elena said...

The ideas about evaluative praise make sense intellectually, but I find myself very resistant to them emotionally. Not sure why. I know with artwork, it often feels more authentic to make a descriptive statement, simply because I don't think we should pretend that every experiment is a masterpiece. That's not how art works. But there are times when a child accomplishes something they've been struggling with, and it feels natural to say, "Wow, you did a great job with that!" rather than simply observing what they've done. I think it would feel robotic in that circumstance. But I'm definitely willing to experiment! :)

Amber Strocel said...

When my first child was one year old I read "Kids are Worth It" by Barbara Coloroso. In it, she recommends against using praise. Instead, she prefers encouragement, which is something like what you're talking about in your examples of positive praise.

Anyways, at first I was really put off. How could praise be bad? But then I read her section on how to tell if your kid is dependent on praise, and I realized that I could answer "yes" to pretty much every question she asked. I realized how being dependent on praise had interfered with my life, and that sold me.

Do I sometimes still praise? Of course. But I've banished the phrase "good job" from my vocabulary, and I try to let my own children decide for themselves what is worth feeling proud of. It works well for us.

Amy Phoenix said...


Go with what feels right and transition the words to include description, gradually edging out evaluation. In time it will feel just as natural and it will be interesting to see the response in your children.

Momma Jorje said...

Watching an Alfie Kohn DVD put me in the same spot. I often wondered what was okay to say and what wasn't. The thing that stands out most to me is that I tend to thank Sasha for using the potty (especially at times of big change when we have more misses). It is definitely something I really appreciate from her! But at the same time, I try not to show any disappointment when she has misses, either. I don't want to make a big deal of it.

Anonymous said...

Very well written and usefully put, but I do have a couple of reservations about Alfie Kohn's view on praise.

Firstly, although I can see that descriptive or appreciative praise (dammit, I keep typing 'phrase' for some reason :-) ) are probably more effective than evaluative praise, and, as such, are what we should be aiming at, I'm dubious about the idea that evaluative praise actually has the harmful effects he says. I think it's good to aim for descriptive praise where possible, but I really doubt we need to get tied up in knots over feeling we have to avoid all evaluative praise on the basis that it's in some way harmful. I think he's making too much of a big deal out of something that basically seems to be more his opinion than based on hard evidence.

Secondly, and more specifically, he doesn't seem aware of any of the work Carol Dweck's been doing on praise, and I really do think that's worth mentioning. In a nutshell, what she found is that praising children for *effort*, rather than outcome, has major positive effects on their willingness to work hard and persevere at difficult problems. So, for example, it would be all right to say 'You did great at school', but the idea would be to then go on to say 'You must have worked really hard'. Good article about this at - well worth reading. Kohn doesn't really seem to have commented on this at any point that I know of, and I think it definitely bears looking at. I've been aiming to do just this with my children.

Amy Phoenix said...

Hi Sarah (I found your first name at your Good Enough Mum site. I like to address people by name when I can since I like human-to-human conversations).

I read through the article you suggested and I feel it's parallel to what's written here and this is why...

Evaluative praise is evaluating the child. Sometimes goes on to evaluate the effort. While children may respond to evaluative praise of effort, because it's something they can control, it can be a slippery slope if a parent doesn't discern between the two types of praise. The intent on the part of the parent or teacher factors in as well.

If we are trying to control children, they feel that. In those situations I feel it's important to just notice that in ourselves and give children their power back by communicating about what we observe while acknowledging that is what *we* observe.

The problem with evaluative anything is it's based on our personal perspectives and perceptions. It's not that it's inherently flawed or wrong, it's just that it might or might not apply to the child. Realizing this can help us have clearer communication with our children, which may lead to more effective praise overall.

Amy Phoenix said...

I found this article by Dr. Haim Ginott about praise also that might be helpful. :)

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