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Praise: Serve In Small Portions
Is it possible to praise children too much?

If a little bit is good, a lot ought to be very good. Right? Perhaps. But over the years I have become convinced that it is easy to overdo praise with children.

I think my daughter was the first person to make me start thinking about this. Fresh out of graduate school when she was born, I was well-versed in the importance of reinforcement to help children develop new skills and become aware of what was expected of them in the family. Reinforcement could be something special to eat or do (a cookie or piece of candy, or being pushed in the swing), or it could be merely some type of social behavior (a smile or word of praise). This type of social reinforcement was known to be a powerful tool to help instill desirable behavior in a young child. Smiles and words of praise come easily to parents who love and enjoy their children, and I for one used them a lot. Whenever my daughter did things I was proud of, I would smile, maybe clap my hands and say something like, “That’s great, honey” or “Look at what you did!” Over the years that “reinforcement” degenerated into clichés like “Neat” or “Good girl.”

One day, when she was about 6, after I had absent-mindedly said, “Good girl” when she did something that pleased me, she flattened me by responding, “Don’t say ’good girl’ to me. That’s what you say to a dog.” After ignoring what I considered her impertinence, I demanded to know, “And just what would you have me say?” Her answer startled me: You don’t have to say anything.” I don’t have to say anything? Don’t have to praise every act of good behavior? Could she be right?

I began to look into research on the subject and to discuss the topic with parents and colleagues. There is plenty of research pointing to the value of praise as a means of fostering learning. But the type of learning studied in the research is usually very simple and the duration of the effects studied was usually very brief, maybe two or three weeks. What’s more, it was difficult to apply principles of the method to behavior you wanted to get rid of, like speaking out in class while the teacher or another child was talking. As is obvious, it would be difficult to praise the child repeatedly while he or she was being quiet. But this line of research demonstrated one important fact conclusively: in our society, children get a lot more attention when they misbehave than when they behave according to our social and cultural standards. For example, the child who talks out is far more likely to be reprimanded than the children sitting quietly are to be praised.

Then I began talking to parents about this issue. Can we overdo praise with our young children? One mother laughed and said roughly the following:

I definitely think we can. I used to clap my hands and smile and say, “That’s wonderful,” when my toddler would go in the potty. He liked it so much he started clapping his hands every time he went. Then all at once, if I got busy and forgot to tell him what a good boy he was, he would have a tantrum and say, “Clap, clap.”

Another mother made a similar comment:

I wonder about it. My little girl seems to get anxious if I don’t praise everything she does. It’s as though she thinks she has done something wrong if I don’t make a point of praising her every time she does something I’ve tried to teach her to do.

Remarks like these, even more than the research evidence, convinced me that my daughter was right to object to too much praise, and helped me understand what happens if children are praised constantly for every commendable action: they don’t learn to evaluate their own behavior without an outside commentary. That is, they don’t learn how to praise themselves. When we praise our children we are implicitly saying, “What you just did conforms to my ideas about what you should do.” Of course, it is terribly important that they know what we—and society—think about their behavior. But it is equally important for them to learn to develop their own ability to judge whether something they have done is praiseworthy in their own eyes.

So remember, put praise on your daily menu. But serve it to your children in small portions. A little goes a long way, and it’s easy to serve so much it interferes with, rather than enhances, their development.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education