Behaviour Modification: Praise
While my previous entry focused on the punishment aspect of behaviour modification, I also wanted to talk about the other side: praise and rewards.
Praise and rewards are often considered a more “gentle” approach to parenting, but a closer look reveals that it is merely a “tame” version of punishments, just the flip side of the same issue – and the results are the same.
At its most manipulative, parents who use this parenting method seek to control the behaviour of the child by withholding attention until the child does something “good”, and then heaping on praise, giving them rewards, or showing lots of “positive attention” as incentive for the child to continue or repeat the behaviour in the future.
At its most innocent, parents have no other “motive” than simply wanting their child to feel loved, appreciated, and valued. Many were not praised as children and do not want the same for their children. But indiscriminate praise is not without its own dangers.
Instills Wrong Motives
Just as with punishment, the praise and rewards aspect of behaviour modification neglects to develop internal motivation within a child. Instead, the child obeys merely to gain praise or receive a reward. The child is taught to do the “right thing”, but for the wrong motives. True compassion, a sense of justice, good decision making, and sincere motives are not formed when praise is used to promote good behaviour.
Internal motivation, rather than external, will prompt a child to make a decision for the sake of the outcome itself. A child should be taught that chores are done in order to contribute to the functioning of a healthy household, not in order to earn an allowance. Good choices should be made because they are the right thing to do, not because they will be rewarded with a new toy. Grades earn a sense of pride in one’s work, not money or praise.
Instead, we have an entire generation of people who need external acknowledgement and appreciation for every little thing they do. There is no sense of self-pride in one’s work, no desire to do something if nothing is to be gained, no intrinsic joy in learning, and no value to an activity outside of what will be obtained from it.
Eventually, a child brought up with praise and rewards will find no incentive to make good choices when the parent isn’t there to notice and to praise them or when no reward will be gained from doing so. Not only will a child do things for the wrong motives, but they will come to do the “right” thing only where rewards or praise stand to be gained. Over time, they will need more praise or bigger rewards to achieve the same results. As they attain greater independence (for example, getting a job that enables them to buy their own “rewards”), they may decide it is no longer “worth it” – there is no need to do chores when they have their own source of income, no need to earn good grades when they don’t need the monetary reward, no incentive to behave a certain way to obtain an item they can now purchase for themselves, and so on.
The overuse of praise soon fosters praise-dependency. As mentioned above, the child will come to do things only for the praise, rather than just for the sake of doing them. Above that, however, they are apt to become people-pleasers. This may seem fine to the parent at the time, until they discover that the parent will not always remain the sole source of the child’s praise-dependency. Seeking to please others is far less desirable when the people your child is seeking to please become his peers instead of you. The child will not have developed appropriate independence, autonomy, and critical thinking, rendering him far more susceptible to peer-pressure in his desire to gain praise and acceptance.
In his book “Punished by Rewards”, Alfie Kohn phrases it this way:
Praise, at least as commonly practiced, is a way of using and perpetuating children’s dependence on us. It sustains a dependence on our evaluations, our decisions about what is good and bad, rather than helping them begin to form their own judgments. It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and offer the positive words they crave.
Even dependency on adult approval comes with consequences. As Kohn cites in his book, studies find that students whose teachers praise them heavily demonstrate less task persistence (diminished intrinsic motivation) and become tentative in their responses, answering in a questioning tone of voice. They are less likely to take initiative when it comes to sharing their ideas with other students, and have a tendency to back off from an idea they had put forward as soon as an adult disagrees with them.
Prevents Natural Learning
Praise disrupts the natural learning process by circumventing the natural rewards that follow a child’s choices. The child’s attention is directed away from these real rewards of their efforts and focused instead on an artificial reward (including praise) bestowed by someone else. Praising a child for sharing, for example, undermines the natural rewards of the action (such as making another child happy) and directs the focus to the parent’s approval of the child’s actions. In doing so, the natural learning experience is disrupted.
Indiscriminate praise comes with particular drawbacks. “Too much praise” renders all praise worthless. Our current strategy in schools, for example, of praising all children equally (in order not to hurt anyone’s feelings, of course) prevents them from coming to recognize their own personal strengths – and, concurrently, denies their personal weaknesses and potential areas of growth.
Afraid of losing approval or of not doing as well, highly-praised children will become more risk-averse, choosing instead to “play it safe”. A child’s creativity is reduced in the process. At the same time, however, praise encourages competition between siblings or peers, rather than building relationships and developing skills in working together.
Both as a result of forming risk-aversion and instilling wrong motives, praise promotes doing the very minimum required in order to attain the reward. There is no internal motivation to go “above and beyond”, no intrinsic value to learning, no desire to risk failure on a more ambitious undertaking if it means losing an adult’s approval.
Contradicts the Gospel
How repeatedly the Bible tells us that we cannot save ourselves! Our faith is a gift of God, our salvation through Christ alone. Our works can never save us – they are merely reflective of our love for God. Likewise, our child’s “works” do not make him a “good boy or girl”, and their value does not come from what they do. Scripture tells us that it is our hearts that matter more than our outward actions. “Good behaviour” that comes from wrong motives is not true obedience at all.
Yet despite all of these drawbacks (and more), most parents balk at the idea of never praising their children – myself included. Sincere praise is, indeed, vital to our relationships with our children, and can be constructive when given the right focus.
Most importantly, praise should always be sincere. Rather than manipulating the child, sincere praise allows us to share in our children’s joy, support their endeavours, and provide specific feedback on their actions. When you are excited, let it show. Express your sincere happiness and enthusiasm over their growth. Be honest about your feelings.
Use thanks instead of praise. A simple thank-you is all the acknowledgement that obedience needs. When a child does something “big” to help out, be sincere in your appreciation (“thank you, that really helped me out and I appreciate it”). There is no need to praise a child for doing what you asked him to do in the first place – just thank him.
Be specific with your praise. Make observations and use descriptive rather than value-based language. Point out the natural rewards of a child’s action. Don’t go overboard praising every little thing a child does.
Praise effort and intent instead of focusing only on the end results. Acknowledge struggles, mistakes, and the process itself rather than just the outcome.
Reflect back to the child and ask them questions. “What do you like about your drawing? What do you think about your grades? How does that make you feel? What do you think about the results of that choice?”
Be aware of the intent behind your praise. Don’t use praise in order to shape a child’s behaviour. Be aware, also, of the effects of your praise so that you can recognized when your child is becoming praise-dependent – doing things in order to gain your praise rather than just for the sake of doing them. Observing this behaviour allows a parent to recognize that they need to reconsider their current method of praising. Perhaps the praise needs to be scaled back, perhaps the parent needs to reflect back to the child more, or perhaps some of the praise can be replaced with more specific observations.
Finally, praise who they are, for they have value simply by virtue of being. Their value does not come from their behaviour, their achievements, their appearance, or anything else. Though we may always be aware that our love is not conditional, our child needs to see, too, that our approval of him is not based on anything other than who he is.
I’d like to end with a comment left by Summer at Wired for Noise on my last post about punishment. These two short sentences sum up both entries perfectly:
“I want my children to act in certain ways because of internal motivation, because they understand these are the good things to do, because it makes them happy. Not because they are afraid of punishment or expecting a reward of some kind.”
May it be so with our own children.