Alternatives to Praise
“What we wish we had known when we were new parents and educators”
“If unconditional love and genuine enthusiasm are present,
praise isn’t necessary.
If they’re absent,
praise won’t help.”
- Alfie Kohn
Many parents and teachers are aware of research relating to the negative effects of rewards and punishments, but they aren’t sure how to guide children in other ways. For many decades, praise has been recommended as the answer, but research indicates that some forms of praise create a different set of problems for children.
And even when we understand the pitfalls of praise and want to move away from “good job!” or “good boy,” these verbal habits are extremely difficult to break. We might be able to catch ourselves blurting out empty praise, or reactionary threats, or manipulative offers of bribes, and then we are not always sure about what we want to say to children instead.
It may be helpful to think in terms of which forms of observation and noticing, acknowledgment, validation, and appreciation are appropriate in different situations.
When a child cries “Look at me!” there is a wish to connect and celebrate rather than an invitation for assessment or critique. Instead of “good job!” we might say “I see you!” or even “Yes, you’re climbing up so, so, sooo high!” while making eye contact and nodding. Notice here that simply stating what is happening is different than praising. A shift this small moves us out of the realm of training children to be compulsively performative, continually seeking praise or even literal applause.
“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be
and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Studies show that children who are praised for intelligence and talent learn to take fewer risks and avoid challenges in the attempt to maintain image. These children also perform poorly in testing situations compared with children who are acknowledged for hard work. This is ironic given that adults praising children for innate capacities are just trying to be encouraging. While the following list of examples is not exhaustive, we hope that it will provide helpful alternatives to overly general and superficial praise like “good job,” “good girl,” “so pretty,” “so smart.”
Sometimes if we pause and decide that praise won’t help, we might decide that no words are necessary at all! In some situations, children will be satisfied with smiling eyes, a slow nod, a warm smile, or even an appreciative and warm “Um Hmmm” …so long as the adult is truly paying attention!
Simply and plainly acknowledging effort, practice, or perseverance rather than intelligence, talent, or other superficial qualities:
- “I see you,” “I see that”
- “Well, look at that”
- “I see all of the blue that you colored; that must have taken a long time”
- “Tell me about how your chose these colors”
- “Look at how carefully this was written right over here”
- “I noticed that you made your bed without any reminders”
- “Thank you for bringing the book to Marco”
- “That was kind to check in with Shanice, thank you”
- “Thank you for remembering to straighten your shoes on the shelf”
- “Thank you for noticing that the cup was too close to the edge”
- “I saw you scoot over so politely and make room for Ya Ya”
validation and reinforcement
- “Yes, that's correct”
- “Yes, do it that way again next time too”
- “Yes, just like that”
- “Oh, that looks like you worked and worked on that for hours!”
- “Did it take a long time to do that part?”
- “Tell me about how you did this part”
What gets in the way
- Adults believing that all praise is beneficial
- Adults who are distracted and who aren’t really paying attention to or being in the moment with children
- Deeply ingrained habits like saying “good job;” and the only solution for changing habits is practice, practice, practice with slow, incremental improvement
- Behaviorist techniques (that boil down to phrase like “rewards and punishment” and “merit pay”) are still the prevailing advice in most parenting books and teacher education today
- Screen media culture promotes “likes,” “thumbs up,” knee jerk critiques, group shaming and other habits of constantly expressing of sympathies and antipathies
5 important ARTICLES
Bronson, Po, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids,” New York Magazine 2007
Dweck, Carol “The Perils and Promises of Praise” Educational Leadership, 2007
Kohn, Alfie “Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job’ (Hooked on Praise),” AlfieKohn.org 2001
Olson, Samantha, “Sugary Drinks May Damage Children's Brains So Badly It Affects Their Memory,” Medical Daily, Healthy Living Section 2014
Spencer, Jenny, “Creating the Habit of Noticing,” ConsciousDiscipline.com 2017
5 important VIDEOS found on YouTube
“Ashley Merryman: On Parenting,” PopTech 2010
“Carol Dweck – A Study on Praise and Mindsets” Trevor Ragan 2014
“Carol Dweck: The Effect of Praise on Mindsets,” Treeincement 2010
“Dr. Dan Siegel – on Disorganized Attachment in the Making,” PsychAlive 2011
“Greater Boston Video: ‘The Myth of the Spoiled Child’ bucks Conventional Wisdom,” Alfie Kohn/WGBH 2014
5 important BOOKS
Bronson, Po and Ashley Merryman, NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children, Hachette Book Group 2009
Dweck, Carol, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Constable & Robinson Limited 2012
Neufeld, Gordon and Gabor Matté, Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers, Ballantine Books 2006
Payne, Kim John, The Soul of Discipline, Ballantine 2015
Kohn, Alfie, The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Coddled Kids, Helicopter Parents, and other Phony Crises, Beacon Press 2016
“After seven experiments with hundreds of children, we had some of the clearest findings I’ve ever seen:
Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.
How can that be?
Don’t children love to be praised?
Yes, children love praise.
And they especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent.
It really does give them a boost, a special glow—but only for the moment.
The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom.
If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb.
That’s the fixed mindset.”
- Carol Dweck