In Praise of No Praise

This article first appeared in the Homeschool Journey newsletter, January 2005

When my family and I returned to the US from Britain, we
came to live in an anthroposophical intentional community which, amongst other
things, hosted visits from school groups, some Waldorf, some not. Part of my
work in the community (other than looking after my children and household) was
to work with these groups.

I remember one group in particular which was flanked by a
phalanx of teachers who at seemingly regular intervals would utter the phrase,
“Good job, good job!” to the children. It took me a while to actually
understand what they were saying (my British-acclimated ears were not familiar
with this phrase) and I became increasingly perplexed by a) the apparent
randomness of the utterances and b) its unnoticed lack of impact on the

I guessed that these children were surrounded and engulfed
by a barrage of “Good job, good job!”, thus their apparent indifference to what
was supposed to encourage and reward them. I saw no noticeable difference in
this group’s behavior: they were pretty average when it came to being ‘good’ or
‘bad’. But what I did notice was a degree of lackluster in their manner and I
also noticed how the “Good job, good job!” chirrupings slid right off them.

Pick up any guide to teaching your child to read, to make
a pot holder, to ride a bike and you will see the injunctions “praise your
child”, “don’t forget to give your child lots of praise”. But is praise really
what is called for? Wouldn’t it be better to cultivate warm support and an
attitude of friendly encouragement, thereby enabling the child to feel
exhilaration at her own accomplishments?

It can be so patronizing to children to constantly
verbalize praise at them: “What a great picture!… Oh, that’s so nice!…
Awesome!…” Doesn’t it get to be a bit much? How does a child gauge degree of
a job well done when he receives so much verbal praise. Instead, we can warmly
receive what he’s done – but, for the most part, not praise, not judge.
Children want to please their parents and I think that too much verbal praise
undermines this by burying our approval under a mountain of phrases which, by
their very volume, can become meaningless.

An example: your 8 year-old brings a picture to you that
she’s just drawn. You say, “That’s great, honey – great job!” What, instead,
would be the effect if you said, “You drew a castle!” (with warmth and
enthusiasm, of course)? What is the difference between your praising what she’s done and your affirming what she’s done.

My feeling is that the latter method is more freeing for
the child and makes her feel not judged for what she has produced but. rather,
affirmed in her actions. “You finished the puzzle… Wow, you built that
treehouse…” There is approval for the action but no judgment of the result.
Therefore, if that treehouse looks like the next wind will take it down, one
can then add, “Let’s make it a bit stronger” or similar. If you had said, “Good
job!” it could seem contradictory to then point out improvements. Yet, since
you are not praising the results but rather the activity, then the fact that
the treehouse needs a few improvements does not lessen your approval.

I should add here that I’m certainly not against all
praise – there are certainly times when it’s needed and appropriate to express
one’s opinion about something a child’s done or to simply say how wonderful you
think they are. It’s when praise becomes automatic and excessive that I think
we err.

Children know when they have produced something that could
be better. If every poem elicits the same, “Great, honey!”, then the final word
rests with you. If you say, “Aha, you’ve written a poem about the rain”, the
child can then say, “Yes, and I’m going to write an even better one next time”
or whatever it is that she thinks about her work.

This isn’t to say that I think parents should be neutral in their actions or feelings
about what their children do. Rather, I would say that the parent’s job is to
demonstrate, to model expectations of behavior and action and then to expect
(and help) the children to rise up to high levels. For instance, when teaching
a child to knit, one produces good work oneself and both expects and helps the
child to do his best as well. Had the teachers of the school group I mentioned
at the beginning of this article extended themselves to provide models for the
children to emulate, to show them how
to do a ‘good job’ (rather than being cheerleaders), then the children’s response would surely
have been to be more engaged and involved in what they were doing.

The point is that if the child’s work arises out of the
human desire to do one’s best, then this is a healthier motivation than seeking
praise or something like stars on a chart. If the satisfaction of a job well
done is the primary reason why we do the
best we can, then surely that helps us remain in touch with this positive side
of human nature. If, on the other hand,
we do things primarily for external rewards, then our connection with our
‘higher’ or ‘purer’ self is weakened.

So the onus is on us as parents, as the primary
trendsetters of values and standards in our families, to have high standards, to not be sloppy or
lackadaisical in our work or attitude. This is a tall order and not easily or
quickly achieved for many of us. It is up to each of us to judge for ourselves
when something is good enough – or when it is not. A maxim to live by might be
“If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well”.

Sure, we’ll make mistakes and mess things up. That’s life
– big deal. But there is a world of difference between an attitude which
strives for good results and sometimes doesn’t quite get there, on the one
hand, and an attitude which says “Who cares?” on the other. And, at the same
time, one needs to guard against perfectionism. Replacing external rewards with
an unrelenting inner voice which gives us no peace in its striving for unreal
expectations is no better. As always, the middle way shows us the way of

One last note… I haven’t mentioned age and should
clarify that I’m basically thinking of children between about 3 and 12.
Obviously there is a great difference in how one parents a 3 year-old or a 12
year-old but I think, given this understanding, my comments hold good. It’s
another matter with teens… but that’s another article!

Posted on July 13, 2005 in Family Life and Parenting

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