Praise vs. encouragement

By: Dr. Lucie Pentz

I can remember it as vividly as if it were yesterday even though it was nearly twenty-five years ago. I was in High School babysitting for an American family when I overheard the American mom say, “Honey, I am so proud of you. Great job!” praising her young son. I remember thinking to myself how strange it was to hear such (in my mind)  exaggerated praise for some routine kid behavior. I paused for a moment realizing how odd this praise sounded to my ear. Then the curtain opened to the endless inner dialog. Wait a minute. My parents never praised me like that? Does it mean they were not good parents? Did they not love me? Is this parenting behavior normal? Is this really strange? Why is she talking in such a high pitched voice? I managed to calm down and proceeded to walk down  memory lane, recalling all the parental behaviors that showed me that indeed my parents loved me. I lived in a culture where the implicit mantra was “talk is cheap,” but as I have become more acculturated, I must admit to having picked up a some of the more postmodern  and admittedly hyperbolic buzzwords like fantastic, fabulous and epic and have embraced the land of great job, terrific work, and what an amazing accomplishment. So, why am I experiencing such a conflicted relationship with praise?

Let’s be honest–praise is often not about the object of our praise, but rather more about us. Praising our children makes us feel like we are good parents, nurturing and caring. Lack of praise is almost equated to emotional neglect. Quick “great job” does not require much mental energy. We can quickly throw a speedy superlative without spending much time inwardly deliberating. We become praise junkies.

So what is the difference between praise and encouragement? Frequently thoughtless praise is like driving through McDonald’s–picking up a quick burger, some fries and a milkshake. It quickly and mindlessly takes care of the hunger in exchange for a stuffed tummy and a food coma. Quick praise can leave our children with inflated heads or egos, but with no real emotional nutrition.  Encouragement, on the other hand, is like concocting a gourmet meal–it takes time, effort, and quality ingredients. Besides, it requires some thinking too. But the reward of that effort is that your child’s spirit will be nourished.

In his classic work on parenting Children: The Challenge, Rudolf Dreikurs advises adults to avoid discouraging the child either by humiliation or overprotection. He writes, “Whenever we act to support the child in a courageous and confident self-concept, we offer encouragement” (39).

Later on, he continues,

If the child sees praise as a reward, then lack of it becomes scorn. If he is not praised for everything he does, the child feels that he has failed. Such a child does things in the hope of winning a reward rather than doing them for the satisfaction of contribution. Therefore, praise could easily lead to discouragement since it would fortify the child’s mistaken concept that unless he is praised he has no value… Parental love is best demonstrated through constant encouragement towards independence. ( Dreikurs 55).

If in fact, the goal of encouragement is towards independence, how do we then replace praise?

First, instead of reflexively saying “great job” we can turn attention towards our children and warmly (without telegraphing our own preconceived notions) ask “how do you think  you did?” followed up with “how do you feel?” and let the child honestly assess the product.

We go about analyzing our bank accounts in such a way as to gain an accurate picture of our resources  (generally nobody logs into his or her account purely to seek a happy feeling–we want the truth, to know if we have overspent or underspent). Similarly, the goal of the child’s self-evaluation is to have a true picture which may or may not result in happy feelings. We want our children to have their self-concept grounded in reality. Our children can sense when we are not being completely honest and that places even more suspicion on the validity of our praise. The goal is to teach our children to develop the skill of realistic self-observation and self-assessment, not to tell them what to think or to unrealistically inflate their sense of competence in any area. Our children want to be able to do things for themselves and to make their own conclusions about their abilities and skills.

The next step of teaching self-assessment may include (if necessary) asking “Would you do anything differently next time?”  Neutral observing language without value judgments is helpful “I noticed that you made your bed this morning without needing a reminder” vs. “I’m so proud of you that you made your bed this morning.” We don’t want to make it seem that our personal feelings depend on our child’s behaviors, implying it that in the future the child should make his bed to make us proud instead of reinforcing the child’s independence. Seeking more thoughtful language forces us to pause and consider the motive or the intention behind our comment. Our goal is to encourage and reinforce independence for our children while offering realistic feedback that teaches a thinking process of self-assessment rather than spoonfeeding happy feelings.

Of course, there are times that a quick “good job” is appropriate. For example, when we line up the studio hallway after morning announcements, it may be a little strange to launch into  mini-interrogations such as “How did you feel about the way you read the School Prayer today?” There’s a time and place for everything. Time to slap a quick “good job” and time to guide toward deeper self-exploration.

Dreikurs, Rudolf. Children: The Challenge. New York: Plume Book, 1990. Print.

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