Emma Waverman writes about the chaos of modern family life. She is the co-author of the family cookbook Whining and Dining: Mealtime Survival for Picky Eaters and Families Who Love Them and is hoping to one day finish her certification as a parenting coach. She lives with her three kids, ranging from tween to grade schooler, and husband in Toronto. Emma has written for a variety of national parenting and lifestyle magazines and newspapers. When she's is not making typos, telling you what she thinks, and thinking about dinner, you can find her on Twitter at @emmawaverman. You can contact Emma at embracingchaos@hotmail.ca.

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Good Job! You Are Raising a Praise Junkie

It's report card time, which means echoes of "Good job!" and "You are so smart!" are echoing through the neighbourhood.

But what if telling your kid they are smart actually produces the inverse result to what you are aiming for? Because that is what the research is saying - that telling kids they are smart and praising them makes them less likely to try new things, less likely to work hard, and more dependent on external motivation. In fact, the praise you are handing out daily seems like the right thing to do but you may be turning your kids into praise junkies.

Don't I know it.

I am a praise junkie. I was labelled the smart girl my whole life (less so now). I believed that if I couldn't master something quickly than why would I bother putting any energy into it and risk showing that I may not be as smart as people thought. That's the thing with labels - the secret thought of every label-wearing person is that the label will be lost in a nanosecond.

As parenting coach Beverly Cathcart-Ross pointed out on a teleconference called the Perils of Praise, a focus on innate intelligence gives a kid a feeling of a lack of control, but a focus on effort gives a kid a sense of control.

So instead of praising your kid for their obvious brilliance, you encourage them by noting their effort. Encouragement is not judgemental and it takes the focus away from the result. So instead of, "Wow, Emma, good work in English, you are so good at reading!" It would be, "Wow, Emma I can see that you have been working hard in math. And your love of reading really shines through."

See how I snuck in the math comment? I was notoriously bad at math and I gave up on it early. But what if my effort in that subject had been noted and encouraged instead of just a disappointed head shake? What if my effort was noted in all subjects instead of the ones I had a natural inclination for?

It's not easy encouraging and not praising. Your kids' art is an easy example. You know how you want to say "that's beautiful!" and "you are a great artist!"? Praise junkie in the making.

Instead try: "Wow, what a picture! I can see how hard you worked on the drawing five fingers on that person" or "There is a lot of stuff going on, tell me about your picture!" Notice how the encouragement draws the child into a conversation about their work, and how you actually have to pay attention to the work so you can talk about it? That's because encouragement is about the child, not about you. It sets up self-motivation, not external motivation.

But encouragement is hard. Saying, "You are great!" is a lot easier than saying something creative that is specific to the situation. Beverly gave us some examples to help us develop our encouragement skills. (You can download the call here.)

Describe the situation: "I see a kid who put on his own pajamas! Give me 5!" This can even be used when a child is getting frustrated and is not succeeding in their task: "That's what I call perseverance!"

Appreciate the action: "I appreciate your patience when I was on the phone" or "I appreciate how fast you got ready today, it made it much easier to get out the door."

Empower: "I've seen you do things that are harder than this" and "I remember when you had trouble writing the alphabet, but you learned. I have faith you will do this too."

Praise says to a kid: 'The end result is important' and they think: 'I can not change who I am'. Encouragement says to a kid: 'My performance will vary in life but my worth will not.' Isn't that a powerful statment? I wonder if it is too late for me? I think I can save my kids from their praise-junkie habits. I mean, I will work hard at saving them, even though it isn't easy.

Still think telling your kids that they are smart is the way to go? Read this article by Po Bronson, co-author of Nurtureshock in New York Magazine.

Are you a praise junkie? Do you tell your kids that they are smart?

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Want more chaos? Last year I posted our favourite Homemade Mac and Cheese recipe from my book Whining and Dining.

Reader Comments (22)

Wow! This is really something to think about. I tell my twin boys "Good Job" all the time. Both of my twin boys have learning disabilities and one was just diagnosed with mild autism. Right now we use praise to share enjoyment of a situation and the growing of social interactions. But...I know that life is going to pose a few more challenges for them than what many children face. I want to empower them and help them find self worth and not just seek the praise...

This topic deserves more thought for me. Thank you for posting this! :)
February 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGinger
While I agree with this somewhat, I still hate that something as simple as praising kids and delighting in their accomplishments is being micromanaged to correct our word choices. My "Wow! That's awesome!" is much more sincere and natural than, "Well, you can certainly tell you've been practicing hard." I find myself generally doing both, since I hate curbing my first-instinct exclamation, and then tagging on the parenting-magazine-correct specific praise afterward. I liked this article by John Hoffman of Today's Parent magazine: http://www.kidsnowcanada.org/praise-craze
February 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKate
I like how praise is the kids' new heroin. What we need now is a praise version of methadone to wean them off this feel good drug of having an acknowledged end result. I do admit the process is just as important as the result but in the end a good job does not inflate their ego to epic praise seeking proportions. Maybe it's just because I like to toe the P.C. line but according to this article are going to be hardcore praise junkies because a good job is just that. Perhaps Neil Young will need to rewrite his song and call it "The Praise and the Damage Done".
February 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJason
i find that people are too busy praising meritocracy that the pursuit of excellence has fallen to the way side! my 9 year old son's teacher always tells them that they can be astronauts, rocket scientists etc, but i disagree! i refuse to listen to her praise the children when she only requires the bare minimum by way of schooling! her class (which she proudly bases upon the philosophy teachings of stuart shanker) consistently keeps up/slows down with the slowest member of the class. if he/she can not grasp a concept then the entire class is held back, there is no giving more/harder work. instead the kids are given toys so that she can observe the students and look for learning disorders or social problems. my son has had 2 weeks of skipped gym classes and is bored stiff. he is praised for being mediocre. when we give him supplemental work at home, we are reprimanded for over teaching. praise should be earned, not given away freely, that is how we ended up with the brats we have today!
February 26, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkorie
I have to agree with Kate. I'm not a parent- but I do have parents. And I'm intelligent- my high school average is currently 89%- good by anyone's standard. And my parents praised me all the time growing up. Praise makes you determined to want more. If someone had told me "I can see you worked hard" on a piece of art, it would be like, ok, great.. but do you like it? Is it good? Did it suck? Should I even bother doing another one if you don't care? Kids need praise to be succesful, otherwise why should they bother working towards achievements if only the process matters. Telling kids that their success doesn't matter as long as they work hard means that they aren't going to bother reaching for their dreams. I know I wouldn't have.. after all, why does failing your SATs matter if you "worked hard"?
February 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen
Amen to that. My parents may have given me a lot of praise, but only if I earned it- substandard results were (and still are) met with dissapointment.
February 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen
I'm actually glad I finally curbed my first-instinct to say "You're a great artist!" with my kids. With a bit of time and practice, I became more relaxed with showing an interest in their stuff and less need to evaluate. I did see a terrific change. My kids began demanding my feedback less often and competed less with each other. They were free of that desparate need for the approval of others that I grew up with (and competed with my siblings over).

I agree with John Hoffman on his point that kids need to hear — the odd "You're wonderful!" and "What a great kid you are!" I would add one thing though - it's much more powerful when it's not tied to performance. It's like unconditional love - my parent thinks I'm a great kid just 'cause. No strings attached, no need to be best.

I also think Emma's point about the 'smart label' is important. A child that gets a variety of responses (both Praise and Encouragement) will be less likely to feel the pressure and stress of being put up on a pedestal.

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBeverley Cathcart-Ross
Children should do things because they like doing them, not only because they're expecting praise for it. All the praise I got for bringing home straight A's only gave me fail anxiety.
March 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRhea
Good effort, I notice you put a lot of effort into having correct grammar for this article. I think there were fewer mistakes here than ever, keep at it you'll get there!
March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian
Seriously who writes this stuff? Did we take into consideration the children who have been discouraged by their parents their entire life?

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersunshine
As an ECE for 18 years I was told not to use praise how ever I do us it with my son, I do think that it is a bad thing to say, " wow you did a great job" but I think sometime it is used more a quick way to respond to something your child did with out having to take the time to talk about what they did, keep the praise but expand on it with " wow you did a great job, I see that you made the the letter B ". or " Look how great you are at getting ready, I am happy learned to put on your own coat, do you want me to show you how to zip it up". So they are still getting the praise but they learn that the praise is earned from them working to do something.
March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKrisann
Ha! Thank you Brian, I really appreciate how hard you worked to use the language of encouragement.
March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmma Waverman
I agree with sunshine. I wish I could've lived in the kind of rose-colored world described by the other commenters. When I was growing up, my parents would say nothing if I got good grades, but would be the first to criticize me if I failed. My teachers were no better. To this day, I'm so used to being badgered that receiving positive reinforcement from my boss seems like a trip to the twilight zone.
March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDarius
Love,affection and admiration are all necessary ingredients to nuture self-esteem,which is the greatest gift you can bestow upon your child.

Nina SpitzerChild Therapist
March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNina Spitzer
Actually, I am currently attending high school, but when I was growing up whenever someone said "WOW Sarah, that looks fantastic!" or "Great job Sarah! This report is great! Keep up the good work!" always encouraged me some more, I admit that's a bad trait, but I enjoyed getting those comments, so I would try to maintain what I had done, or tried doing it better to get more comments and praises. That unfortunately is called an attention seeker, but I never did anything below what I had done earlier because I think Im doing fine, i always thought the more I do, the more people would say.

But thank you for posting :)
March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah
As a pre-school and elementary school teacher in a child centered classroom, I learned that acknowledging effort over results encouraged young children to attempt more difficult tasks. As a parent, I couldn't help but convey my absolute pride and joy in my little darling's every accomplishment. As a teenager she would say "Oh Mom, you HAVE to say that - you're my Mom".

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKim Harper Brooks
Can't bite my tongue on this one, you mean to say that not saying "Good job" when your child does something well is somehow going to raise better children? As a kid I constantly looked for recognition when I did something well and not getting it crushed and discouraged me. I'll grant that it's made me try harder to get what I get in life, but I would have killed for a bit more recognition along the way. Another article trying to push the idea that a single way of parenting is best for every kid.Nice try though.
March 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermichael
just tell the kids to keep trying their best. tell them they're doing well but dont go all out like OMG GOOD JOB HERE U GET A LOLI lol i have been one of those kids who got so discouraged by my parents trust me telling them they can do better look for the good points say what you think then look at the bad ones tell them to try but dont give them a lecture kids hate that tell them if they can improve that mark next time while maintaining current marks they can get some kind of prize praising is fine but like everything else it should be done in moderation
March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterUnknown
You are so wrong. I dont care what the research says. Giving praise is key toa childs healthy development. There should be a 4 to 1 ratio for praise to negative comments to your children.

PRAISING your child when they do something that is right and good or smart encourages that behavoir. EXPECTING them to 'be good' or 'do the right thing' is the dumbest approach to child care I have ever heard of. You are setting them up to fail.

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKrystal
I guess in this case though praise would be better. Encouragment and what is said in this article is also important but at a lower level than praise. Your twins need to be ready for the world but they also need as much love as they can get. every once in a while they're going to need a motivation or a peek at the real world but i think the main thing you should focus on when it comes to small, innocent little children is saying things in an extremely positive manner in which they dont start to critisize their own work. If you tell them, "I like how you worked hard drawing five fingers on that person," they might think that something is wrong somewhere and thats why you're trying to change the topic. Your decision to make for your own kids, i'm not telling you how to raise your children. Just giving you my thoughts. :)
March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDear Kiran
See, When I was a child, I didn't get alot of praise. I was told that I did a good job and that it was ok becuase I "did my best." The problem was becuase I was told "as long as you tried your best." I never accelled in any of my classes. It was disappointing and my parents would be upset that I didnt do better, yet they never gave me enough priase to want to do better. Really Theses "stats" are wrong, theres a line to how much praise to give a child but if you dont give enough they think you dont care as a parent. If you give a child too much praise or set the standards to high, they'll grow to resent the fact that nothing will ever be good enough for you, the parent. I say encourage your kids, don't over do it and don't under do it. It would be like not telling your dog they did a good job at not barking or peeing on the floor.
March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNew Divide
I was one of those 'smart kids.' I read a lot as a youngster, so language and grammar classes came easy to me in school. I was praised constantly, but I didn't have to work at it , so I never learned the importance of studying. So when it came to subjects like math and science, which I didn't have an intrinsic interest in, I gave up. Every once in a while I would feel like I should try to make a greater effort and that I should be capable of mastering these subjects as well, but I whenever I did make those efforts, they were never noticed or my failure was noticed instead. Lack of and excessive praise can mutually hurt a child's estimation of effort, especially when it comes naturally to them. But praise is definitely something every child needs. Additionally, children should be encouraged to make progress and also receive recognition of attempts, especially in areas they are weak in.
March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSam

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