Praise is a controversial topic in Gentle Parenting circles. Many mistakenly think that gentle parents never praise their children and eschew any attempt to show children that we are proud of them. In fact, this is simply not true. Praise can and does form a role in Gentle Parenting, however it looks different to the praise that most people know and use.
So, what’s the problem with praise? Surely everybody likes to be praised? Doesn’t it help us to feel good and appreciated? Not, so. Research actually shows that certain types of praise undermine intrinsic motivation, that is it can make a child less likely to repeat a behaviour (that they have been praised for) because they want to. This is because praise works on raising extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation just means that children behave for external reasons – ie to receive praise, it doesn’t mean that the children are behaving in a certain way because it feels good, or because they want to. The more we extrinsically motivate children, the more we risk undermining their natural desire to want to help and ‘do good’ and creating ‘praise junkies’, children who only ‘do good’ to receive verbal rewards. Damaging intrinsic motivation is not the only problem with praise though. Research also shows that certain praise can damage children’s self-esteem. This may sound bizarre, surely praising helps children to feel better about themselves? Actually, it doesn’t. It can actually cause them to struggle when they don’t receive praise, doubting their capabilities.
Does this mean praise is strictly taboo in Gentle Parenting? No, it doesn’t. However praise should be used carefully and mindfully. There are certain ways to praise that not only avoid the pitfalls mentioned above, but genuinely help children to feel good. Let’s look at some.
1. Praise should be specific
Much of the praise children receive is unspecific and insincere. ‘Good boy’, ‘Well done’, ‘You did it’, ‘Clever girl’. Praise in this manner is actually dismissive. It shows the child that you weren’t really looking at what they did. It is akin to praising a dog, it may work for a dog who doesn’t have the same depth of thought as a human, but humans need more. If you are pleased with your child, tell them exactly what for. “I saw you give the ball to the little boy because he was sad he had nothing to play with. I felt really proud of you for being so kind”. Hopefully you can see why that is so much more preferably to “good boy”.
2. Praise should be effort based
When we praise children only for their achievements and ignore their failures, we run the risk of causing anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. If your child has tried hard to remember their three times tables, but has struggled for months to get there. Don’t just praise them when they finally succeed. The three months of ‘failure’ is ultimately what caused the success and it matters far more. The effort is what you should notice, not the outcome. “Gosh, you are so dedicated to learning your times tables. I just know you are going to get there soon with all this practice” is far better than “yay, you did it!”.
3. Praise should focus on what children can change
There are certain things in life children cannot change. Their looks being one. Praising children for their looks, or fixed characteristics that they have no power to change, can actually cause issues with self-esteem as they grow. Praising children, particularly girls, for their appearance is dangerous territory. It can actually cause issues with body image as they grow, particularly in their teens (something I have covered in depth in my Gentle Eating Book). Praise only what they have control over.
4. Praise should be descriptive
This follows on from point number one. Descriptive praise shows a child that you are really watching them and appreciating what they are doing. If you child shows you a drawing that they have done, don’t be tempted to say “it’s lovely, well done!”, instead try to focus on specific aspects of the drawing “I can see that there are two birds in the sky and some lovely big pink flowers. Why did you choose to colour the flowers in pink? Where do you think the birds are flying to?”. Children thrive when you really ‘see’ them.
5. Praise should focus on what the children can repeat and learn from.
Carol Dweck is a psychologist from Harvard University, famous for introducing us to the concept of Mindsets. She differentiates between a growth mindset (when children accept they are not good at something – yet, but believe that they have the ability to improve) and a fixed mindset (when children believe that ability is fixed and give up because they feel they are not good at something). Praise, scarily can and does encourage a fixed mindset. A way to shift towards a more growth mindset is to focus more on the effort, not achievement, as in point two, but with an important addition – asking the child WHY they think they managed to achieve something this time? Ask them what they did differently and what they have learned that can help them when they are struggling with something next time.
Don’t be scared of praise and don’t berate yourself too much when you slip up. Even the most practiced gentle parents (including myself!) slip up sometimes. You will still find yourself echoing the non-specific achievement based praise of your youth. I say “well done” far more than I would like, however being mindful of praise should hopefully see you shift slowly to that which is more gentle and effective.