Should you praise your children?

A friend of mine posted this quote on facebook today.

"From an early age, we're training our children to expect recognition and rewards way beyond what seems reasonable. A gold star for breathing. A certificate for turning up. Lavish praise for functioning like a reasonable kid. This is dangerous stuff, because it creates an expectation that we will be taken more seriously than is healthy for us."

I have reasonably strong feelings about praise and rewards, and at risk of boring my long-time readers, here's something I wrote back in 2007 about it.

Becky Bailey in Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline, believes that all encouragement is not necessarily helpful.

The forms of praise that she says can be discouraging are:

Too much general, all-encompassing praise. This can unduly burden your child and pressure her to live up to unrealistic standards. Eg. "You are always so sweet and helpful."

Too much praise that relies on value judgments, so that 'good' equals pleasing others and 'bad' equals not pleasing others. Children who make honest mistakes may believe they are 'bad' and become perfectionists. They also may grow up to be very hard on others.

Praise that focuses on what you think about the child's behaviour. He may conclude that he is only lovable when he pleases his parents or teachers.

Only praising for accomplishments. Children need to learn that the process of putting away toys (for example) counts just as much as the product of a clean toy room in the end.

Praising by comparing to others teaches her that in order to be valuable you must be special. Such statements say, "I only want the best" and promote competition over unity.

So what else is there? These are the ways I praise my children all the time. I don't know any other ways to do it!

Bailey offers two ways to encourage our children so as to promote a healthy sense of belonging.

1. Notice your children rather than judging them. Children want and need to be seen. Just giving them your attention is encouraging in itself. Feeding back to them what they are doing strengthens their frontal lobes and promotes language development and a sense of self.

Basically, parents should be like a polaroid camera for their children. If my daughter has just mastered a cartwheel and wants to show me, I can go and look at it. Then, instead of saying, "Well done, how clever you are", I can take a virtual snapshot and give it back to her like this: "You put your hands down in a perfectly straight line and your feet went right over your head. You look just like a wheel. You have worked so steadily on this for a long time, no wonder you can do it perfectly now."

Children ask to be seen, not judged. If we replace seeing with judging too often, the excited four year old who shouts "Watch this" becomes an anxious eight year old who asks, "Did I do this right?"

2. The second way to encourage your child comes from linking her actions to enjoyment and satisfaction rather than tangible rewards.

When we rely on material rewards, we teach children to value things more than relationships. Studies have shown that rewards decrease the quality of a child's performance, although it may increase the quantity. If a child will get a prize for reading 20 books, he may choose the 20 shortest books to rush through, rather than enjoying 20 books each for its own sake.

Punishments teach children to fear adults and rewards teach them to please adults. People pleasing may make 'nice' children, but it may lead to succumbing to peer group pressure in the teenage years.