Too Much of a Good Thing?

To praise or not to praise…should there even be a question? Well, yes. It’s not that simple.

Many of you have heard of a movement afoot insisting that praising children is not a good thing. Forget millennia of experience and common sense showing that positive reinforcement—external positive reinforcement—is by far the best way to train all living creatures.

The science is sound. Behavioral scientists have conclusively shown that animals will increase those behaviors that are reinforced. Behaviors that are not reinforced either stagnate or will extinguish altogether.

If you are offered a significant enough reinforcer (reward), you will perform any behavior. For example, if I offered you a penny to pick your nose in public, you probably wouldn’t do it (unless, perhaps, you knew it would go viral on YouTube). If I offered you fifty bucks, you might consider it. If I offered to pay your child’s college education, you’d be tickling your brain in half a second.

Most younger children are not reinforced by money, just as most adults are not reinforced primarily by praise. As much as I love what I do, I wouldn’t do it for long if all I received was praise. But children are reinforced primarily by social reinforcers. Sure, TV and candy are powerful reinforcers, but I hope I don’t need to convince you that your child should not be trained with Smarties and Teletubbies.

The most important social reinforcers for children are: attention and affection. Attention need not necessarily be in the form of praise; children are reinforced by simply being noticed. “I see you are brushing your teeth properly” is almost as powerful as “Good job brushing your teeth properly!”

What’s the difference? One points out to the child with little emotion that their efforts are noticed. The child feels good to be noticed and looks inward for a sense of accomplishment; the reward is, in a way, self-delivered. The other uses external pride and relational closeness as a reward—in essence, an extrinsic reward.

Both are important. We don’t want our children to behave only because we are proud of them. They need to learn how to be proud of themselves. But here is the crucial difference.

Children learn much faster when motivated by both external and internal rewards. We reinforce them for learning new tasks—for succeeding in new challenges. Do I praise my 10-year-old for brushing her teeth properly? No. But I do praise her for mastering a challenging a multi-step math problem or crafting a superb metaphor. I don’t rob her of her internal pride by offering her my pride. She can enjoy both and be reinforced by both. This is how the real world works. We are reinforced by both internal and external rewards.

In summary, children benefit greatly from all forms of positive reinforcement. Social positive reinforcement—attention and affection—are the most powerful and appropriate tools and should be part of a balanced, varied repertoire of training. Praise is a fairly intense form of attention.

Praise your child when attempting and mastering novel challenges. Use affection liberally. For particularly difficult challenges, there is almost no such thing as too much praise. Once the child has mastered a challenge, frequent praise becomes unnecessary and less potent, so it can be toned down and offered much more infrequently until the child has over-learned the task or skill. Don’t praise your eight-year-old for mastering her alphabet (unless it has been a particularly intense challenge), but do praise your three-year-old!

Remember to vary the forms of reinforcement. We don’t want our children to have external praise as the only motivator. We want our children to be increasingly motivated by a balance of reinforcers, including internal pride, external praise, affection, fun, and a host of other things.

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