We live in a culture where a blue ribbon, a gold star, or at minimum an enthusiastic "good job!" has become commonplace—and even expected—when children participate in an activity, regardless of their effort or outcome. But using praise and rewards indiscriminately can backfire. Here’s why:
- Children begin to expect constant acknowledgment and are alarmed when they don't get it. They come to rely on external praise rather than develop internal motivation or confidence in their emerging abilities. They stop doing things because they should or can, and instead do them for recognition.
- According to Dr. Carol Dweck, children who come to rely on praise take fewer risks, because they are unwilling to lose their praiseworthy status. When children seek praise, they tend to avoid anything they won't get "right.” Mistakes, trial and error, and risk-taking are critical elements of any learning process.
So what should we do instead? Offer encouragement.
Focus on character. Instead of praising an end result, offer encouragement for children’s efforts and attitudes. “That was really hard, but you kept trying. You showed a lot of determination.”
Be genuine and specific. "Thank you for cleaning up your toys without being reminded,” rather than generic, e.g., "You are wonderful.”
Use growth mindset. Dr. Dweck developed the idea of “growth mindset,” which means viewing our development as flexible, continual growth, rather than a fixed outcome. Instead of saying, “I can’t tie my shoes,” encourage your child to think, “I can’t tie my shoes – yet.” Instead of focusing on fixed personal traits, e.g., “You’re so smart,” focus on behaviors and skills that can be learned, e.g., “You’re learning to ask good questions.” .
Examples of Praise Versus Encouragement
Generic or Person-Centered Praise
- You are always so beautiful
- Good job
- What a smart kid you are
Encouragement or Genuine Praise
- You really stuck with that—your hard work paid off.
- I can tell you're working hard on reading because you finished a longer book.
- I appreciate the way you organized the shelf—it makes it easier to find everything.
Instead of stickers, generic praise, or rewards, expect the best effort and give genuine encouragement and praise. Kids recognize and appreciate authenticity and will develop self-motivation and resilience.