Why Kids Don’t Need Praise From Parents (And What They Need Instead)

June 12, 2012 at 6:46 am (Positive Discipline)

Recently, I was chatting with a mom at the playground about kids’ behavior, and she commented to me that kids need praise and approval from their parents, as there are too many dysfunctional adults in the world to indicate otherwise.

To this, my response was, “I think what they need more than praise and approval is encouragement and acceptance.”

“Isn’t that kind of the same thing?”

Not really.

I understand where she’s coming from; she means that many adults have emotional and behavioral problems because growing up, they needed something from their parents that they simply didn’t get (or didn’t get enough of). I agree. And this thinking–that kids need an abdunance of praise from their parents in order to grow up confident and emotionally stable–is not uncommon. The thing is, it’s not actually praise and approval kids need.

You may argue this is just semantics, but it’s really so much more.

When I hear people say that kids need praise, what I think they really mean is encouragement. Praise is superficial and non-descriptive. It’s “Good job,” or, “I like that” or, “That’s a pretty picture,” or, “Excellent work.” It’s generic and leaves a person wanting more, needing more…not feeling quite satisfied. Our self esteem might be high while we’re receiving praise, but if it ever stops, we either seek out more or get discouraged about its absence. Praise is an external motivator and must be constantly applied to remain effective.

Encouragement meets the same purpose as praise and speaks to a more meaningful sense of accomplishment. Encouragement gets to the “why” of praise. It communicates what’s so ‘good’ about something, why we’re proud, what we love about it, or the qualities that make it excellent.  Encouragement takes praise a step further with messages of effort, persistence, thought…the deeper reasons behind why someone should be proud of their accomplishments.

Good job; you worked so hard on that!

That’s a pretty picture; there’s so much detail in there.

I’m proud of you; that took a lot of patience and you never gave up.

And it’s the encouragement that’s important. The praise can stay or go (some would argue that it should go), but the words of encouragement are all a child really needs to hear. If the feedback they hear from you is, “You worked so hard,” or, “Boy, there’s so much detail in your painting,” or, “That sure took a lot of patience,” there’s nothing lost and a lot gained. It’s the same message of enthusiasm that is now focused solely on the child and the things we value: effort, hard work, persistence.

But, you may ask, without the good job we’ve taken out the part about our approval, haven’t we? If we never say “Good job,” or, “I like that,” or, “I’m proud of you,” they’ll think we don’t approve of their work–of them–and have low self esteem, right? Won’t they always be seeking approval?

Not if we’re communicating effectively; deeply. If all we ever offer is the superficial stuff, the blanket praise without any meaning behind it, kids will always seek approval because they’ll never feel satisfied. But if we’re offering meaningful and genuine encouragement for their achievements, they won’t need our approval. They’ll approve of themselves.

So, more accurate than saying kids need a parent’s approval is to say they need our acceptance. Kids don’t need us to approve of everything they do, they need us to accept everything about who they are. Yes, even the mistakes, the misbehaviors, the unpleasant feelings they sometimes often express. We don’t have to approve, but we do need to accept. It’s the acceptance, not the approval, that works miles towards developing long term relationships and teaching discipline, responsibility, confidence, and self-love.

We accept children by hearing their feelings without judging them, by empathizing without evaluating, and comforting without criticizing. We accept that they had a bad day and their behavior is reflecting their feelings. We accept that sometimes they make mistakes, sometimes they need to cry, sometimes they don’t behave perfectly. That doesn’t mean we approve of the harsh language, the harm they inflict on others, or damage they may cause to personal property. But we accept it is a part of being human, growing up, and learning to manage big feelings and fix mistakes. We accept them for who they are today, right now. And we’ll do the same thing again tomorrow. And again every day until they’re all grown up. And even then too.

A parent’s approval will never matter to our children as much as our acceptance will. We don’t have to approve of anything our children do if we can accept everything about who they are.

It’s not semantics, it’s perspective. As soon as we understand there’s a difference between praise and encouragement, approval and acceptance, we begin to interact more authentically with our children. With encouragement and acceptance comes the development of a child’s self confidence and the ability to rest in the security of an unconditional relationship.

For more on this topic, check out “Encouraging Words for Kids,” an ebook of examples of alternatives to praise.

15 Comments

  1. Sharing some good thoughts… | JustCallMeMomma said,

  2. Lois Ingber said,

    Jane: Once again, you make an important distinction and contribution to our thinking on connecting and building relationships with our children in ways that build their confidence, courage and character.

  3. Positive Parenting Connection said,

    This is wonderful. I wrote on acceptance last week at Authentic Parenting and I have been working on something about praise and encouragement. I will be sharing this in my sunday sharing and link back when I finish up the encouragement post. I appreciate your examples and how show that praise taken a step further can become really helpful encouragement.

  4. » Sharing Sunday Positive Parenting Connection said,

    […] Why Kids Don’t Need Praise From Parents (And What They Need Instead) From Parenting From Scratch with Kelly Bartlett: When I hear people say that kids need praise, what I think they really mean is encouragement. Praise is superficial and non-descriptive. It’s “Good job,” or, “I like that” or, “That’s a pretty picture,” or, “Excellent work.” It’s generic and leaves a person wanting more, needing more…not feeling quite satisfied. Our self esteem might be high while we’re receiving praise, but if it ever stops, we either seek out more or get discouraged about its absence. Praise is an external motivator and must be constantly applied to remain effective. Read on… […]

  5. » Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Praise? Positive Parenting Connection said,

    […] For more information on praise check out  Five Reasons to Stop Saying Good Job! by Alfie Kohn  and this fantastic post by Kelly Bartlett on Why Kids don’t need Praise from Their Parents(And What They Need Instead). […]

  6. Delilah said,

    I really feel that you have wonderful points in this blog post, children do need encouragement and acceptance – BUT I still disagree in part. Without praise, even with bucketloads of encouragement and acceptance, children may not realise when their work is excellent, beautiful, well done and so on.
    I think that the idea that praise is unnecessary to building self esteem is utterly and completely wrong and will leave the child never knowing if they are doing good work. It’s confirmation for the child and adult that their effort is recognised and appreciated.

    • Jason E. Stewart said,

      What I love about your comment is the desire for our kids to get feedback about how they’re doing… I think you’re speaking to wanting the kids to grow up feeling secure about themselves and their work, is that it?

      What I’m less comfortable about is your strategy for helping them get that feedback – praise. Actually, I think you have it exactly backwards in your comment – I think you can give bucketloads of praise and kids might feel good for a while, but when they realize that your doing it to manipulate them – to “build their self-esteem” – it will lose all effectiveness. I think anyone, including our kids really just want to know what their actions touch inside us, why do we enjoy what they did. And as far as I’m aware, this is the overwhelming findings of the research in this area.

    • Cyllya said,

      I notice some research I’ve heard about suggests that praise ultimately lowers self-esteem. It seems to lead to what Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset. More info:

      http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/business/06unbox.html?_r=0

    • Danielle said,

      I know she’s saying replace praise with encouragement, but esentially if you encourage your child the way she describes, you are praising them as well. Just as she says: you’re taking it a step further. Do you really think if you say to your child “I’m proud of you, that took a lot of patience and you never gave up!” or if you say “That’s a pretty picture! There’s a lot of detail in there!” They won’t get a sense that they have done something well?? Really, how can you encourage your child without them feeling praised? There’s nothing about this article that is “utterly and completely wrong”.

  7. Laura @authenticparenting said,

    This is a great explanation, very clear and thorough. Will be sharing on SUnday Surf

  8. Nick Wilkinson said,

    I think its important for your kids to know where you stand with them. They need to hear the words “I Love You” and “I am proud of you”. You can’t just assume your kids know this, hearing it reinforces it and I will make your kids day.

    I talk about this on my blog too http://www.actingnotreacting.com
    A Practical Guide To Teens In Crisis.

  9. mymummyisfunny said,

    My daughter (almost 8) told me the other day that she noticed other children pick pennies up and keep them, saying ‘that’s mine’ even if it isn’t theirs.
    She said that she wouldn’t do that, but would find a teacher and give them the money as someone could have lost it.
    My initial and knee jerk reaction was to say ‘oh that’s so sensible, what a kind thing to do’…….

    I didn’t say that. In fact for a few moments I didn’t say anything. I let what she was telling me sink in and I worked out what I wanted to communicate back to her. And I realised I wanted her to feel her actions weren’t being judged or praised, but just ‘accepted’.
    So I repeated back what she said
    “Oh ok you would give the money to the teacher”
    She said yes, and we quickly moved on. No praise but no judgement. Just acceptance of her viewpoint and actions. I felt SO good for not praising! It didn’t sound hollow or contrived as praise sometimes (often) can.
    I felt SO good for accepting her actions without needing to qualify my feelings on it. The fact is, she would give the money in to the teacher because she felt it was what she wanted to do…she didn’t need the praise to do it, she already had chosen to.

    It felt like such a revelatory moment.

  10. amanda said,

    So in a nutshell the focus is on the journey and not the outcome

  11. Beth said,

    Yet a lot of times kids are telling us things to determine If it was the right or wrong thing to do. They do need guidance too. I believe descriptive praise is good. Like I’m proud of you for asking for help with emmett instead of pulling his hair. My son will sometimes pull his brothers hair to express his anger at him for stealing his toy ( their one and three ) so he needs me to offer him different solutions. I understand emmett makes you mad but you need to ask mommy for help instead of pull his hair ( like the one year old does to him) I don’t believe just listening to him and not giving praise or anything is the right thing to do.

  12. Adrienne said,

    Love this post!! I have reblogged it on my blog, since this is something I’ve been trying to differentiate in my mind and implement in my home. Thank you! A really great, clear explanation. :)

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