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The Problems With Praise
And Why It Can Backfire

by Tammy Cox, LMSW

"Give children lots of praise." This sounds like good parenting advice, but there is a difference between appropriate praise (encouragement) and inappropriate praise.

Praise tends to stimulate rivalry and competition, because it focuses on quality of performance and the child usually feels judged in comparison to others. It can also foster selfishness and create a "better than others" attitude and a child might become a quitter if she can't be the best. Praise fosters dependence and teaches children to become pleasers because it is external motivation.

Encouragement tends to stimulate cooperation and contribution because it focuses on the process (effort, determination, persistence and joy) rather than the end product. The child feels accepted because her value is not dependent on the quality of her performance. Encouragement also fosters self-interest which doesn't hurt others, self-sufficiency and interdependence because it is internal motivation.

Common praising statements such as "You are such a good girl/boy.," "You're the best.......," or "I'm proud of you.," tend to create children who always look to others for approval. Encouraging alternatives might be "I love being with you.," "You're a great kid.," "It looks like you really enjoy that.," Thanks for your help.," or "You must really feel good about what you've done."

While it is important to watch our language, the real key to distinguishing the difference between praise and encouragement is to check our intent. If we are trying to manipulate the child so that he will keep pleasing us, it is praise. If our intent is to acknowledge him for who he is or what he's done, or just let him know how much we appreciate and value him, it will be encouragement. While the two may sound very similar, children can tell the difference and they will pick up on our true intentions.

An excellent book on how to be a more encouraging parent is The Magic Of Encouragement by Stephanie Marston.

This article copyrighted by Tammy Cox, 2002

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