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When We Turn Kids Into Praise Junkies

17/03/2014 13:19 GMT | Updated 16/05/2014 10:59 BST

Imagine you just had good sex with your partner. You hopefully feel relaxed and peaceful now; you might try to keep the good atmosphere. Suddenly your partner rolls over to you, he or she sticks a gold star on your cheek and says "Well done. Good lad!" Yes, that would feel very odd. You laugh out loud or check your partner's forehead (is she in a delirium?) Agreed, this example is quite unlikely to be true, but nevertheless it's something we use every day when judging our children's performances in school, during activities or at home.

Alfie Kohn writes in his book Unconditional Parenting (a very good read), that 'in our culture's workplaces, classrooms, and families, there are two basic strategies by which people with more power try to get people with less power to obey. One way is to punish non-compliance. The other is to reward compliance.'

That's how it works, unfortunately. Bribery, punishment and rewards are ground pillars of our society. So no wonder that parents use them as well. How often do we hear phrases like 'clean up your bedroom or you won't watch TV' or 'if you do your homework now, then you'll get a sticker'?

Research confirms how ineffective rewards are when it comes to improving the quality of someone's work or learning. Children and adults alike are less successful at many tasks when they're offered a reward for doing them.

So why on earth are we using rewards? Is it the way we were conditioned as children? Always dependent on praise and positive judgements from our parents, teachers, friends - and later on in life, partners and bosses. And what happens to us when we don't get that praise? How do we feel then?

That's exactly the issue. We focus on a job or task to finish and think 'hey, I really like what I do here and it looks great'. Then we look for approval from someone. If then no-one says to us 'Well done' or 'Good job !', we might feel empty, less worth or even rejected. Well, that's how I often felt when I didn't get my daily dosage of praise.

The more people are rewarded for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. It's hard, sometimes I still fall into the trap of trying to please people in order to be praised.

'Good Job/Well done can interfere with how well a job actually gets done. Researches keep finding that individuals who are praised for doing well at a creative task often stumble at the next task. Why? Partly because the praise creates pressure to keep up the good work that gets in the way of doing so. Partly because people's interest in what they're doing may have declined (because now the main goal is just to get more praise)' (Kohn).

So what is it I want for my children? Do I want my sons to engage in reading because they're curious about how a story continues or do I make them read because I promised them some chocolate as reward?

What alternatives can I use?

Well, being empathic and using our creativity can help us a lot:

  • When your child achieves something (let's say he/she paints a picture you really like and you see how proud they are), try not to judge or praise. Instead describe what you see (today you have used a lot of red and purple and there's that huge rainbow). But don't overload your child. Just give something to your child, he/she can reflect about. This way they'll appreciate their work even more because you have showed true interest

  • Your child does something 'for you' (clearing the table or doing the washing up). Respond with a 'Thank you" instead of praise. Or you could say 'I saw you already cleared the table. This helped me finishing our evening chores and so we have more time for reading/playing together'. Do you see the difference? You're stating a fact, rather than giving a judgement.

'As a result of praise, children become less able or willing to take pride in their own accomplishments - or to decide what is an accomplishment. In extreme cases, they turn into praise junkies who, even as adults, continue to rely on other people for validation (...) Rewards and punishments can never help someone to develop a commitment to a task or an action' (Kohn).

But that's exactly what I want for my kids: that they can show commitment, passion and curiosity. I want them to explore, to discover and to learn without the fear of failing or not succeeding. Yes, they will make mistakes and yes, they will learn from those. They don't need my or anyone else's judgements to get better at things. They need people's authentic feedback, to help them review and change and try something else.

I'll guide and support them as good as I can, but in the interest of their self-esteem and their confidence, I choose not to (over)praise. I want them to become gentle and caring members of society, without being dependent of others' approval or expectations.

Read further: Alfie Kohn Unconditional Parenting