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“Good job!” Is Praising Young Children a Good idea?

November 13 2017


By Lauren Lowry, Hanen SLP and clinical writer

“Good job!”, “Gimme five!”, “Awesome!”, “What a beautiful picture!”… these are a sampling of encouraging phrases you might hear at any playground, preschool, or anywhere else young children hang out. I’d never really given these words or the idea of praise much thought. I praise my own children when they accomplish something challenging or new, and I also praise the children with whom I work. After all, children with communication difficulties can really struggle sometimes – shouldn’t we acknowledge their efforts?

You can imagine my surprise then, when I attended a parenting talk at my son’s school, which addressed the negative effects of praise on children. Apparently, praise manipulates children so that they do what the adult wants them to do; it can also decrease a child’s motivation and sense of achievement. Yikes!

Turning to the research on this topic, I realized that there is a great debate among experts about the effects of praise on children. I came across a helpful article called “Clarifying Issues Regarding the Use of Praise with Young Children” by Dr. Mojdeh Bayat [1] which summarizes this debate, with particular focus on the use of praise with children with special needs. Using information from Dr. Bayat’s article and other sources, I have summarized the “praise debate” below, and given some suggestions about using praise with young children.

Praising Children – How it all Started

The terms “good boy” and “good girl” have been used since at least the mid-1800’s [1]. But the idea of using praise to motivate children really took off after the publication of “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” [2] in 1969, which suggested that many of the problems of American society resulted from lack of self-esteem [1]. As a result, praise became a way to boost children’s self-esteem, and over a thousand scholarly articles have since promoted the use of praise to improve children’s motivation and school performance.

Praising children with special needs increased in the 1960s, when studies (especially from the field of behaviourism) began to show its positive effects. Many intervention programs today continue to use praise with children with special needs because it can prevent:

  • “learned helplessness” – which can develop when a child has repeated negative experiences in a situation, and comes to believe that he has no control over the outcome [1]. In this case, praise may motivate and encourage a child to learn.
  • challenging behaviours – when an appropriate behaviour is “positively reinforced” (e.g. praised), it is likely to occur again, while an ignored behavior is likely to decrease [1].

The Flip Side of Praise

In the 1980s and 1990s, some scholars started to argue that praise can undermine children’s motivation, create pressure to continue performing well, discourage risk taking, and reduce independence [3]. Alfie Kohn, an author and lecturer on this topic, explains why praise may be harmful for young children [4], claiming that praise:

  • manipulates children – praise is a way of getting children to comply with adults’ wishes. This works in the short term because young children want adults’ approval. But Kohn argues that we should not take advantage of children’s dependence.
  • creates praise “junkies” – the more praise children receive, the more they rely on adult evaluations instead of forming their own judgments.
  • steals a child’s pleasure – children deserve to delight in their accomplishments instead of being judged. Most people don’t think a statement like “Good job!” is a judgment, but Kohn argues that it’s as much an evaluation as “Bad job”.
  • decreases interest – research has shown that people tend to lose interest in activities for which they have been praised. Instead of motivating a child to engage in an activity, praise motivates a child to get more praise.
  • reduces achievement – children who are praised for creative tasks tend to stumble at the next task. This may be because of the pressure created to continue to keep up the good work, and because the child has lost interest. In addition, children who are praised are less likely to take risks, as they may fear they won’t receive positive feedback. It’s also been found that students who receive positive reinforcement do not persist in the face of difficulties [5] (Maclellan, 2005).

In some cultures, such as East Asian cultures, praise is rare. Despite this, the children seem to be very motivated [3]. Furthermore, comparable terms for “good boy” and “good girl” don’t exist in some…Read More