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Praise is Harmful

Today I am reading about the harmful things that praise does to people in Alfie Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards.” I can recall times when exactly what he talks about happens to me when praised. Now I no longer want praise. I can see how much harm it has done me in the past. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. One think that stood out to me is that he said that when praised, our brains automatically evaluate that praise, compare it to what we already think or know, and turn on our self-criticising feature. Don’t we all do that? “You are so thin!” Thoughts inside are images of others who I know are thinner. I begin to think how I wish I were as thin as they are. I begin to feel angry with myself for not exercising enough. I begin to try to explain to myself why I am not as thin as I should be. I look down at my tummy and feel self-conscious. I want to hide from the world.

He also mentions a quote from a poet and one from an artist. They feel evaluated and worried about future performance when complimented on their work. He says people are less likely to try again for fear they’ll mess up their good review by adding it to a bad one. This is true for me. After praise, I become worried about what people will think of me the next time, and I slow my progress in the next one. With my writing, after praise, I stop working as much. Why? It’s beyond me, but it’s true. JK Rowling, author of the famous Harry Potter series, finished her entire book, handwritten, before passing it on to a typist (meaning likely nobody saw it until the first draft was entirely complete). Could this have been the secret to her success?

An argument he gives on the praising of children is that studies show that it makes them less interested doing what they received praise for, just as with rewards. We can destroy our child’s interest in doing what they love by praising.

He says (and so true) that we are a Skinnerian society (B.F. Skinner is the “father” of behaviorism), and “praise junkies.” A junkie being someone addicted to and not able to do without something, how is this good? How could it be good to have our self-worth tied to the praise we must have? It is no wonder depression is so high in our society, being that it is so addicted to Behaviorist theories! The Behaviorists believe that it is good to give punishments, rewards and praise. After reading what I have so far of Alfie’s books, I am going to change my ways!

I think of my kids and their baseball and softball season this late spring, and see how praise destroys a good thing. My son did not want to play his last game. Why? I think it was due to the cheering. We as parents have no idea how the cheering destroys these kids. When we say, “Good job,” after they do not hit the ball, we think this is like a band-aid to patch up the fact that they did not receive the loud whistles, claps and cheers of the entire team and audience, when in fact, their ears know that they did not do well, because they did not hear the loud whistles, claps and cheers of the entire team and audience, and they know if they had hit the ball and made it to base, they would have received those things. They are smarter than we think they are. They know what we want them to do. I also noted the polite clapping when children made base because they got “balls” pitched to them, and get to walk to base. The kids walked with their heads down, and frowned. They do not feel that the polite claps are a good sign. They see it as failure.

Noting all this, I tried to minimize the effects with my kids, telling them it was about having fun, exercising, and making friends. I don’t think this helped. I think it made matters worse. It probably made them feel that I was saying, “Since you aren’t playing well, I want you to know that it is not about being good at it. It is about having fun, exercising, and making friends,” which, indeed, was not the case. But it is what they think about themselves and what they think we think about them that affects them, not what we think about them.

Alfie says that our goals with praise are to encourage, spur on, motivate and improve self-esteem with our praise. All of the many studies show that praise does exactly the opposite of all of those things. Crazy, eh? But true!

Not praising, punishing or rewarding encourages, spurs on, increases interest, helps improve performance, and keeps self-esteem at a good healthy level (steady and true) instead of making it go up and down and up and down (unhealthy).

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7 thoughts on “Praise is Harmful

  1. This is interesting to think about. I’m not sure I entirely agree as I do believe that there is a place for positive recognition, especially in our world today where so much of the focus is on the negative. Maybe it’s how we praise that makes the difference? One example is the tradition to clap at the end of a performance. The performers worked hard and deserve that recognition and praise. I’m sure they know any mistakes they made and will try harder next time but the clapping shows their work was enjoyed and paid off. I guess I’m trying to remember that all things need their opposite. In the scriptures, God openly praised his Son. He did it in a general way, but he let the world know He was pleased with his Son.

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    • I think that clapping at a concert or something is very different from saying, “good job” and clapping for your kids. I know it is hard to understand and most people will disagree. I am constantly saying good job. I just know it is harmful so I try to catch myself and not say it. It makes my ki dependent on me for approval. I want them to be dependent on themselves for approval. For example, it it better, if my daughter draws a picture, to say, “Oh, look. You drew that. Will you tell me about your picture.” Then as she does, I say, “I see. Why did you choose to draw a mermaid?” (or something similar to that.) Then she will tell me all about it. See, then I am paying attention to her, showing her love, and yet doing it without making her think she needs my approval to keep at it. She keeps at it because she likes to do it and not because of my praise.

      That will be healthier for her adult life. For example, if she is 30 and enters an art piece as a submission at a gallery and is rejected, she still keeps doing that kind of art because the approval of that gallery is not something she needs in order to be happy. The doing of the art is what makes her happy. She will keep doing it and not feel a loss of “self-esteem” at all because she has not been conditioned to think that the reason for doing that art is because others think “that is really good.” Instead, she is conditioned to think that the reason to do that art is because she enjoys doing it.

      When my kids play tball or something like that, I don’t clap, or try not to. Instead, I wait until the end of the game and tell them I watched them. Then I ask 4 questions:

      1) Did you have fun?
      2) Did you get good exercise?
      3) Did you make friends?
      4) Did you learn some things?

      Those 4 questions teach them that the purpose is not to win or to play well enough for the audience to clap, but to get exercise, have fun, make friends and learn.

      It may seem counter-intuitive at first, but try it and you may like it. It changes kids. It helps them to see that you do not love them for their achievements. You love them no matter what. You teach them that even if in softball or baseball, they never hit the ball and never make it to a base, it’s o.k. The learning, fun, friends and excercise are the reasons, not the winning of the game or whether they hit a home run. This makes them play more seasons and improve, if that is what you are after.

      We still have issues at ball games anyway, because the grandparents come, and guess what they focus on? They focus on whether they hit the ball and made base. They even offer ice cream or dollar bills for these things. That teaches the kids different from what I want them to learn. It is discouraging, but I do want grandparents to come. I just keep doing things my way. Hopefully my teachings will shine through more.
      I hope I have helped you understand.

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      • I do understand. I don’t agree with what the grandparents are doing at the ball games, but I do think the right kind of praise can help spur us on to continue to do well, especially as we apprentice in something. I think from a gospel perspective, our self-worth should not be based on praise, but on knowing who we are as children of God. I grew up with parents who never praised me and I often took that as not caring whether or not I even tried. I know when I serve in a church calling, that praise from my leaders helps me know I am doing my calling correctly and accomplishing good. I can see both sides of this debate. 🙂

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      • I have a question. Did your parents not praise you and also not praise your siblings, or did they praise your siblings and not praise you? Did they insult or demean your work? All of this makes a difference.

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      • Let’s just say that as the oldest of five, for most of my teenage years, my parents pursued their own interests outside our home, so I had to grow up fast and be extremely responsible. I didn’t receive much positive attention nor recognition, but I’m sure my siblings did not either. I have a hard time with expert opinions on parenting because I have raised my children in a way that is completely natural to me and my husband (and purposely opposite the way I was raised). For me, I feel successful as a mom because my children know they are loved and valued and I never felt that way as a child.

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      • O.k. Now I understand your situation and how you will understand better. Alfie Kohn’s book, “Unconditional Parenting” is a great read about how to give your kids attention, emotional support, time, love and caring not based on conditions, such as how well they do at things or how well-behaved they are, but based on, they deserve it because they are kids and they are your kids.

        The problem with praise is that when you do not praise, they are hurt because they notice that. Then what they see is conditional love based on what they were praised or not praised for. It is how the child sees it that matters (not how the parent sees it).

        Alfie Kohn also recommends “time in” instead of “time out,” wherein, when the child is not nice, you go spend “Time In” with the child instead of isolating the child.

        I thought it was crazy, but years ago, I tried it for the first time. It worked so much better than “time out” ever had or would.

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  2. I think we are actually on the same page. 🙂 I wanted to share this article I came across today as I was pondering whether or not our Heavenly Father would have us praise our children- https://www.lds.org/liahona/2013/03/raising-resilient-children?lang=eng
    I love that President Benson counseled mothers to “Praise your children more than you correct them. Praise them for even their smallest achievement”. I believe that in our homes where the gospel is the foundation, where we have raised our children to know who they are from birth (children of God), and where we are naturally unconditional parents because we have an eternal perspective, that our praise for our children is completely genuine, given on natural instinct, and that in most instances (maybe not in competitive sports), reinforces their individual worth. I like the title, “unconditional parenting”. I would say we are both unconditional mothers and have been since before our children were born.

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