Patterns of praise

28 October 2011
When we say, “What a beautiful drawing!” to a child, we are actually evaluating his drawing, thereby putting ourselves in the position of authority. Adjectives like ‘good’, ‘great’ and ‘excellent’ are, by their very nature, judgmental. They take the focus away from the work and onto the judgment of the work because the listener’s attention will be pulled towards the positive judgment.

Patterns of praise

Do you praise your child too much?

Juli Herman asks whether your praise of your child is doing more harm than good.

Nice kick!” and “I love your drawing!” are handed out like sweets to children by well-intentioned parents. We praise children to encourage them, build their self esteem, and as positive reinforcement. Little do we know that certain praises can actually damage their self esteem and deprive them of the ability to assess their own self-worth.

Praises that Damage

When we say, “What a beautiful drawing!” to a child, we are actually evaluating his drawing, thereby putting ourselves in the position of authority. Adjectives like ‘good’, ‘great’ and ‘excellent’ are, by their very nature, judgmental. They take the focus away from the work and onto the judgment of the work because the listener’s attention will be pulled towards the positive judgment. What’s wrong with judgment? If evaluative praises are dished out often, it can make the child dependent on an authority’s approval for his actions or work. He even addictively looks forward to it. If there is no one around to give it, he won’t know what to think of his own work. As a result, he is robbed of developing the ability to assess his own work or behaviour. When a child responds, “I don’t know. Is it good?” to a question about what he thinks of his work, it is an indication that he has become accustomed to having his work assessed, that he doesn’t even trust his own judgment anymore. Rather than encouraging or building his self esteem, we are actually tearing it down.

Other than being vague, these praises sound insincere if given too often. A telltale sign that this has occurred is when a child says, “He’s just saying that to be nice.” Even a child is able to detect an insincere gushing review. In fact, when seeking critiques, adults would say, “Tell me what you really think.” Common praises have become so cheap that their value has decreased.

Furthermore, “Great drawing!” doesn’t reveal what’s great about it. The next time the child creates another piece of artwork, she will rely on another evaluation because she doesn’t know what she did that was so great before. However, even if a parent were to be very specific in an evaluative praise, for example, “I love the color of your sky!” it is still evaluative, thus still rendering it problematic. So what’s a parent to do?

Describe, Describe

“You’ve put all your toys in the box! Masha Allah!” is an example of a descriptive praise. Describing brings the focus back to the object of praise and away from our reactions. Thus it’s free of any judgment. It leaves a lot of room for the child to evaluate his own behaviour or work because what has been said was merely a verbal description of what he did. It also produces an opportunity for a conversation, should the child choose to share his thoughts and evaluation of his work. This is what builds self esteem. When a child starts to evaluate his own work or behaviour, he is learning the art of improving himself, noticing what he didn’t do enough of and how he can improve in the future, and in the process, he develops confidence in his own abilities. Feeling that he owns his work completely, he’ll be more inclined to ask for feedback and incorporate it with his own evaluation. There is a difference between relying on outside evaluation alone and asking for outside input in addition to one’s evaluation.

Sometimes, we don’t even need to say anything. Just being there and paying attention can be more than enough for a child. “Look, Ma! No hands!” actually arises from a child’s need for his parent’s attention. The fact that we notice what they are doing or accomplishing and sharing in the delight and excitement is encouragement enough. At other times, a squeal of delight or a “You did it!” would be sufficient.

Express Gratitude

Another way of rephrasing an evaluative praise is to express our gratitude. Praises don’t have to flatter. Instead of “Great job, Sarah!” which focuses on an evaluation of her work, “Jazakillah khair for clearing the table, Sarah. I don’t know what I’d do without you,” brings focus to how her action impacts others. This is important for a child’s emotional intelligence. It teaches her to be more attuned to others’ feelings and needs. When the child realises that she can make a difference in people’s lives, she will feel that she is an important part of the community. This boosts her self esteem, but more importantly, it will develop an inclination to help and serve others because good actions beget good feelings. Plus, she also learns to express gratitude to others.

Encourage Self Reflection

Nothing shows a child we’re sincerely interested in his work than asking him questions about it. Rather than gushing with, “I love it! It’s your greatest story!’ over his latest masterpiece, it would be better to ask, “How did you come up with the main character?” or “Did you enjoy writing this story?” in a non-critical manner. This is more likely to induce self-evaluation on the child’s part. As he begins telling the parent his thoughts, they will be engaged in a conversation about his work. For one, the child will bask in the knowledge that his parent truly cares about his interests enough to ask him more about it, and this in itself boosts a child’s emotional well being. Secondly, it allows the child to act as an active reviewer of his own work, giving feedback and input as to what he did, why he did what he did, and what he would or should do in the future. What better way to bolster self esteem than giving that power to our child?

Connect to Allah

Unfortunately, praises, even when given properly, can build our child’s self esteem so much so that she actually becomes vain and arrogant. Therefore, it’s very important that we connect our child to Allah in our rephrased praises. Instead of just saying, “Masha Allah, you held the door open for that lady,” we can add, “Alhamdulillah, Allah must have given you tawfeeq to do that.” If it was a younger child, instead of just, “Look! You coloured inside the lines!” we can add, “Hmm…I wonder who made you able to do that?” Awareness of Allah should be ingrained in our children from a very young age when their fitrah are still fresh and pure. Everything they do should be connected to Allah. If this is done consistently from a young age, it should easily be understood and appreciated in these modified praises. When they’re much older, a simple “Jazakallah khairan,” or “Alhamdulillah,” is more than sufficient in reminding them that the reward lies with Allah.

It may not be as harmful to tell a friend, “I love your hijab!” as it would be to tell your 5 year-old daughter, “I love your drawing!” When praising impressionable children, we need to take more thought and effort to produce the intentioned effect. Thus effective praising is a skill parents should take the trouble to master for their children’s sake.

by Alfie Kohn
Drive - The surprising truth about what motivates us’ by Daniel H. Pink