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Praise, Rewards and Punishments

"Rewards and punishments are ... the worst enemies of the natural development of the child. The jockey gives sugar to his horse before the race, but applies spurs and the whip when there is lagging. Still, do any of these methods induce the animal to run as swiftly and as superbly as the horse of the plains?"

-Maria Montessori

Many adults say "Good job!", "Awesome!" or "Good girl/boy." to children. Praising can make someone feel good. Is it the best way to encourage children? What about the job that was done was good? What was nice? And how is she/he a good girl/boy? It helps a person to know what exactly they did was praiseworthy.

A "verbal reward" that you say when a child has been good or has complied to an adult's will. When praising encourages them to do an action to please the adult, is that really what's best for the child or is it what's best for the adult? The more we praise them in this way, the less they act on their own accord, guided by their inner compass and the more they behave "just to receive approval".

The truth is that children have an inner drive. They were born to want to learn everything, they want to explore, they want to figure things out. Maria Montessori observed that some children were even upset when the adults were congratulating them after they had completed working on materials. A child doesn't learn to walk to please adults. They will walk because they are meant to move. They learn to read because they want to read books. They get dressed because they want to become more independent.

Montessori encouraged us to nurture that intrinsic or internal motivation. We provide self-correcting materials for that reason. If the child can check his work, then he doesn't need the adult's approval to keep learning. Praising does the opposite, it reinforces "external motivation".

A famous study (M. Budd. Rowe - 1982) had demonstrated that the children who are praised often hesitated to answer the questions due to fear of getting it wrong and therefore not to be praised or seen as smart and are also less likely to carry on challenging tasks, preferring the easy tasks to make sure they receive praise for it or at least never have to face failure.

“Those actions came to be seen as not as something valuable in their own right

but as something the children had to get that reaction again from an adult”.

- Alfie Kohn

Another series of experiments conducted by psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia that studied the effect of praise on students in a dozen of New York public schools. Children in the study were given an easy series of puzzles. Afterwards, each child was given his score. Half of them received brief praise for their intelligence, “You must be smart at this.” The other half was praised for effort, “You must have worked really hard.” The reactions of the children were astounding. When given a choice between an easy or more difficult test the second time around, the children who had been told they were smart picked the easier test. The children praised for trying were up to the challenge of something harder. Then, in a difficult third round of tests, all the children failed. The ‘effort’ children felt they could do better; they enjoyed the challenge and wanted to try again. They continued to show tenacity, perseverance, and improvement. The children praised as smart stopped trying, completely defeated.

If a stranger’s praise has such power to influence a child, imagine the effects of a parent’s daily validation?

Children are resilient and adaptable, and it is never too late to make adjustments in the way we parent. But we have a window of opportunity in the first years to help our child grow healthy emotional roots, strong enough to endure the rollercoaster of life.

We use praise believing it bolsters children's confidence, makes them feel happy, capable, and loved. Those same good intentions also lead us to rush in to rescue children from any perceived suffering, including possible disappointments, struggles, frustration, mistakes and especially failure. But this eventually backfires because children need to experience all those “negatives” in order to learn to take them in stride. They need to know that struggle, frustration, and failure are not to be feared, but just a part of life. In fact, healthy learning, growth and success are impossible without them.

Believing in our children is not telling them, “You’re the best” or "You're so smart.", and then fixing their fallen block tower. It is believing in them enough to let them risk making mistakes, to flounder as they experiment with their developing skills. Tenacity and perseverance are not traits a child grows into. They are traits babies are born with. We condition our children to quit trusting themselves by helping too much or too soon.

Praising our children is a knee-jerk reaction that takes constant self-reminders to control. I still find myself starting to say “great job” to my children, and switching gears into, “You must be really proud of yourself!” and "How does that make you feel?" It’s a fine distinction, but an important one. The ability to persevere through frustration and struggle, and to then be acknowledged for one’s efforts is the real route to happiness and self-confidence. Continuous praise becomes empty, and there is never enough.

Transitioning from "Good job" to “You did it!” Praising the effort, not the outcome.

Emphasis is on the action, with no judgement.

“I am so happy for you!” “You must be so proud of yourself” “Let’s celebrate!”

“Learning to fall, getting up again, and moving on, is the best preparation for life.”

-Magda Gerber

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