Why Praise Doesn’t Motivate Children

Did you know that children can’t skip until their brains are structurally mature enough to do so? The corpus callosum allows the two sides of the body to communicate and cooperate, and skipping is one of those things that requires that cross-body cooperation. To complicate matters, the right hemisphere controls that left side of the body and vice versa. So a kid can have all the enthusiasm in the world, but ultimately it’s her biology that determines her ability to skip.

Until a kid learns to skip she is just galloping.

I tell you this story because I read Alfie Cohen’s article on praise at right around the time that my daughter started skipping.

It had a huge effect on me.

My kid was determined to master skipping. After all, most of her friends could already do it and it was a gross motor rite of passage. Every day she’d shuffle along at the park or on the sidewalk, a look of deep focus on her face.

Inevitably she would exclaim “Look Mama! I’m skipping!!”

Except… she was so NOT skipping.

Just a week or two before I would have said, “Good job!!” It was a reflex. An acknowledgement that she was trying. Something to say before turning away to read my book or talk to another parent.

But, I’d just read the article.

Up until that point, I praised my little girl constantly. When she ate a healthy meal I told her she was doing a good job eating. When she presented me with a scribbled on piece of paper I told her she had done a good job drawing. I told her that I liked the way she did things and that she was smart. Pretty. Funny. Sweet.

Just FYI, my kid was (and remains) pretty great. I praised her because I wanted her to believe that about herself. Still, the article made me rethink the intent behind my interactions with her.

According to Cohen, constant praise discourages authentic connection. He suggests that telling someone “good job” leaves only one other alternative–a bad job. His advice was to celebrate process over product.

Does praise motivate kids? Sure. It motivates kids to get praise. Alas, that’s often at the expense of commitment to whatever they were doing that prompted the praise.

So I didn’t tell Aya that she was doing a good job skipping.

As she joyfully galloped around the park, I only said what I observed. One day I told her, “You are really working hard at learning to skip!” Another day it was, “Whoa, you get faster and faster every time!” I asked questions about which friends could skip and who else was still learning, and what her favorite parts of practicing were. I gave her high fives and celebrated her improvements.

When she got close to skipping I told her she was almost there.

…And then it happened.

One day the kid stopped galloping and started skipping!

Her brain hemispheres were talking to one another in a way that they hadn’t before and her legs were politely taking turns with one another!

Aya realized this before I did. Her sweet little face morphed into a grin and she let out a squeal of pure, unfiltered joy.

I opened my arms and she skipped right into them.

Hugs happened. Good, heart to heart happy hugs.

“I did it!” she said.

“You sure did.”

More squishy hugs ensued.

Almost a decade later, that memory remains one of my most vivid and treasured from my daughter’s early childhood.

It never would have happened if I’d told her that she was doing a good job skipping when he was just galloping. I’m pretty sure that she would not have worked so hard to achieve the goal, and that we would not have enjoyed our time together nearly as much.

In the years since that day my daughter has reached many more milestones, and I continue to do my best to be present and avoid empty praise. Sometimes I find myself reverting back to saying “good job” especially when I am tired or checked out. For the most part though I try to be present and connect through questions and heartfelt conversations.

What about you? What do you think about praise? How often do you tell your chid that she is doing a good job? I’d love to hear what you think.

In a future article, I’ll offer some tips on cultivating deeper interaction with your kids.


Originally published at parentingpaths.com on October 16, 2015.

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