To find out more about what motivates young children, we convened a roundtable of five prominent educators. They talked about appropriate — and ineffective — ways to use praise to encourage kids.
How do you feel about praising children as a way to support their growth and development?
Eva Moravcik: Praise, in the way most adults intend it, is supposed to be a good thing. After all, we all like to be acknowledged and have something good noticed about us. However, praise is often about manipulation. In other words, adults praise children to get them to do something.
Docia Zavitkovsky: And I think what we want is for children to gain confidence in our words, to know that our words are honest. I don't think we give children credit for seeing through us and for sensing what is honest and what is not.
Frances Stott: In and of itself, I don't think giving praise is a bad idea. However, to my mind, praise is massively overused and misunderstood. Parents and teachers often have good intentions, but fall back on such standard lines as, "Good job, Sally!" or "Oh, what you're doing is wonderful." And praise becomes meaningless.
Moravcik: I like to use the cookie analogy. You have one cookie and it's wonderful. But living on a steady diet isn't very satisfying. Pretty soon you aren't interested in any more cookies. Yet many adults are still surprised when praise stops working.
Then how can we use praise more effectively?
Barbara Bowman: Children need to understand that praise may be given for both effort and performance. We do this by not being effusive with our praise unless one or both are present and by making clear what we are praising.
Zavitkovsky: I sometimes say that praise is fine "when praise is due." We get into the habit of praising when it isn't praise that is appropriate but encouragement. For example, we're always saying to young children: "Oh, what a beautiful picture," even when their pictures aren't necessarily beautiful. So why not really look at each picture? Maybe a child has painted a picture with many wonderful colors. Why don't we comment on that — on the reality of the picture?
So, is there a difference between praise and encouragement?
Moravcik: Yes, I think so. Encouragement is about genuinely acknowledging and appreciating what a child has done: "You did that. You climbed to the top of the climber," or "You put your jacket in your cubby." Encouragement is about the child. And praise is about what I want the child to do. Children can see through that.
Zavitkovksy: Saying "good job" or "beautiful picture" over and over sounds hollow to a child. Kids are very perceptive about who we are, what we say, and even our timing. And our praise can cause children to begin to need all the accolades they can get, and to be motivated externally, which is just what we don't want them to be.
Moravcik: I think praise can set up a relationship of dependency, and soon we are cultivating praise junkies: "Do you like my picture?" "Did I do a good job?" We want children to be good people or eager learners because they are self-motivated — not because they want to please us. When we acknowledge a child for what she does, it gives her back control. She did something she wanted to do and feels satisfied about that. She feels good about herself. We are acknowledging her right to decide to do the right thing for herself.
How important, then, is the source, the person who provides the encouraging words?
Bowman: There is no question that both positive and negative feedback are more meaningful when they come from someone who cares for a child and whom the child cares about. Relationships set the stage for how praise and encouragement is given and received. Different individuals and groups may do it differently. I am African American and my grandmother did not give verbal praise easily. Yet I never had any question about when she approved or disapproved of what I was doing. She loved me and I knew it. She expressed her love by what she did, not what she said. The important point is that both the adult and child understand the emotional message being conferred by their behavior.
Polly Greenberg: I also think it's important to remember that what we communicate to children nonverbally has infinitely more influence on them than the words we say. I don't think neglecting to praise a child, if all the vibes are loving and endorsing, matters much.
How does positive feedback influence a child's self-esteem?
Stott: The misconception is that if we give children praise and positive reinforcement, they will feel better about themselves. However, if a child doesn't have a strong self-concept based on meaningful relationships, a parent can't make up for it by saying "good job." Certainly, parents — and teachers — are able to establish important positive relationships with children. But those relationships are based not on praise but on genuine caring for, and understanding of, the child.
Greenberg: I think a critical source of positive or negative self-esteem for a young child is whether she feels competent or not. Young children swell with pride whenever they master something they're trying to do, like climb higher on the monkey bars. Making sure that each child has achievable challenges in her life, and reflecting her pleasure back to her when she is pleased with her progress or accomplishment in something she finds meaningful, helps develop self-esteem.
Stott: Helping a child achieve genuine mastery is a gift that parents and teachers are in the best position to provide. So, instead of saying "good job," you can actually help him do a good job. Let's say your child is trying to put a puzzle together. You can give an occasional hint, allow him enough time, make sure he has the opportunity to work on it, and let him make his own mistakes. In other words, you facilitate your child's attempt to do the puzzle for himself — and that is presenting the child with the opportunity to achieve mastery.
There are so many opportunities for children to achieve mastery and to feel competent — learning how to learn, learning how to think about learning, and learning to play with others. And nothing substitutes for this. Children cannot be told they have achieved mastery — they know it. Though they appreciate when we acknowledge what they have done, they have to know and to feel it themselves.
Our Panel of Educators
Barbara Bowman, M.A., is the founder and former president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development in Chicago.
Frances Stott, Ph.D., is the Dean for Academic Programs at the Erikson Institute.
Docia Zavitkovsky spent 39 years as director of the Santa Monica Unified Schools Children's Centers and 20 years as an instructor of child development at Santa Monica College in California. She is a past president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Polly Greenberg has been a child/parent/staff development specialist for 40 years. She has worked for the U.S. Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the War on Poverty, and other national programs.
Eva Moravcik, M.Ed., who worked closely with Stephanie Feeney, Ph.D., professor of education at the University of Hawaii, in contributing to this roundtable, is associate professor of early childhood education at Honolulu Community College.