Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

To Praise, or Not to Praise, That Is the Question

How are parent’s supposed to know what to say when their children does something well?  There exists a plethora of parenting philosophies that advise parents to always, sometimes or never praise children for a job well done. Even within the philosophies that extol the value of praise, there is disagreement on how and when praise should be phrased and delivered.  Today, we will clear the murky air on the topic of praise.

Last week, I recommended, via Facebook, that Intelligent Nest, LLC followers read Adam Grant’s NYT article, “Raising a Moral Child”.  Much of Grant’s article focuses on the power of reinforcing good moral behaviors through praise.  A savvy IN client astutely asked me to defend my article, “Pernicious v. Intelligent Praise“, in light of Grant’s empirical evidence that children’s moral behavior improved after their good characters were praised instead of their actions.  (My praise article recommends that praising the being of the child should be avoided and, instead, praise should offer non-judgmental, specific feedback for behavior.)

I was excited to receive this question because it illuminated a void in my original praise article.   While I instructed readers on how to properly praise, I did not distinguish between praising the non-moral and moral behaviors of a child and this distinction can be important in understanding praise.

For instance, a baby who just took his first steps should be praised for his effort and persistence, but exclaiming “good boy” for this action connects the worthiness of his personhood with the non-moral action of walking and could lead the baby to feel that his performance makes him a good person.  Young children, unlike your family dog, are intelligent enough to read into language and extract meaning from your phrasing.  Therefore, using moral judgmental phrases, like “good boy”, should always be avoided in non-moral behavioral praise.

Using moral behavior praise, like saying “good girl”, when a child shares a favorite toy, may be appropriate because the child was demonstrating good behavior.  It is possible that the moral praise can help to teach the child what good behavior is and encourage her to see herself as a good person, as Grant pointed out.  Nonetheless, even though the praise makes sense in this case and may possibly be instructive, it does not mean that using moral praise is the best, or most lasting, way to reinforce good behavior in a young child.

Why?  Let’s touch back to Grant’s article.  He cites a couple of studies using children ages 3 to 8 years-old.  He concludes that moral praising produces the best results for children around 7 and 8 years-of-age because this is when children are developing a sense of identity.  Prior to age five and after age ten, the effects of focused character praise where not pronounced or particularly lasting.

This distinction in the effectiveness of character praise on children of different ages is essential.  On, we focus on children from birth to age five and all advice is tailored for this age group only.  Although one of the studies that Grant used noted an increase in moral behavior of a group of 3-to-6 year-olds, he made the caveat that the results were not lasting.

Recall, from IN’s article on discipline, that fear is the most effective motivator for a young child.  Young children live in a big world that they cannot fully understand and this is terrifying for them.  They are prone to anxiety and their brains often operate in survival mode.  For this reason, if you want a child to do something, the easiest way to get them to do it is to scare them.  This is why many parents see results after spanking (please note this is not an endorsement of the spanking, rather just the opposite) and why parents tell their children to be good or else Santa will leave coal instead of toys in their stockings.  This is also why praising a young child’s character and being can produce better behavior.

A parent who praises a child for being a good, nice, kind or loving child will be more likely to have their child behave in a good, nice, kind or loving way, but this does not mean that the child will choose to behave accordingly in the future, as Grant’s studies found.  The child may choose to be good more often, but for all the wrong reasons.  Here is a breakdown of the underlying thoughts in the contrasting methods of addressing good and bad behavior:

Fear/Guilt-Laden Praise that Comments on the Self

“My parents love me when I am good.  I want my parents affection.  Obtaining affection is tied to their love and approval of me.  When I am good, I obtain affection and approval and so I feel good.  I am afraid of loosing my parents  approval.  Therefore, I will be good so that I receive approval.”

Descriptive, Non-Judgmental Communication that Comments on the Behavior

“I know my parents love me all the time.  Sometimes I make good choices and sometimes I make bad choices.  But, when I behave badly, I feel bad and I make others feel bad.  I don’t think I am a bad person and I don’t like feeling bad or making others feel bad.  Therefore, I will not behave like a bad person.”

A young child, as Grant points out, is not necessarily mature enough to be able to assess her own character.  Instead of hearing character praise and connecting it to her own evaluation of who she is, she hears her parent saying that they expect her to be a good girl and behave in a good way or else she’ll lose their love.  So the child may behave well in an effort to grasp hold of love and not because she believes it is right, good and desirable for herself.

Parents who opt to use fear to motivate their children, may find that their children begin deviating from their good behavior when the fear spell wears off in late-childhood and adolescence.  Essentially, if fearing the loss of a parent’s love is the primary motivator to encourage virtuous behavior, then the child may choose to abandon virtue when they no longer rely upon the receipt of parental love and approval.

Instead of using praise that primarily comments on the character of the young child, use descriptive and non-judgmental praise, as described in my praise article.  Occasionally using fear-laden phrases to motivate your child will not harm them and it can be very beneficial and effective in sticky situations where you require your child’s absolute obedience (ex. safety concerns, etc…).  However, constantly using fear-laden praise can have a negative effect on children and doesn’t always produce desirable results.

I also support teaching children about virtuous behavior by labeling and describing good behavior when you observe it.  For example, “That was good, bad, kind, etc…because…”. Finally, when you see fit, occasionally opining and offering hope and assurance to a child with a comment like, “I think you’re a good kid, because….  What do you think?”.

Thank you for your questions and comments Intelligent Nest clients and followers!  Please keep them coming!

Outdoor portrait of a cute young black girl playing with a swin


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