In 1993, author and lecturer Alfie Kohn published his book ‘Punished by Rewards’ where he claimed that praising children is bad for them. I have only read snippets of Kohn’s work, so it is dangerous for me to criticise or praise it. I must admit, though that I find his titles provocative, and I can’t fully understand whether he is against praise in itself, or the way praise is delivered or the intention behind the praise.
In an interview, Kohn was asked ‘when praise is ok,’ he answered that he has fewer problems when praise are given if the giver is genuinely excited about the child’s effort, but even in those occasions, he believes that it can potentially turn kids into praise junkies. He also believes that praise signals conditional acceptance.
Of course, Kohn’s argument has a scientific basis; after all, he is respected in his industry and considered an expert. However, I think that his view of praise is too cynical for my liking. He considers praise as simply a verbal reward given to manipulate behaviour, and that even if the givers intention is honest, the recipient are still going to experienced praise controlling.
I think this analysis is sad. One because it assumes that all people are manipulative, and two, it underestimates children’s intuition and intelligence.
Children are highly intuitive. They know if their parents are sad, happy and angry. And they can certainly sense if adults are just manipulating them. They may not express it, but that doesn’t mean they are oblivious to it.
Kohn argues that praising children for their effort can have a negative impact. He theorises that this tells a child that he is a loser and not capable of succeeding at future tasks.
Praise isn’t simply a verbal reward; it can be an expression of thanks or pure delight or admiration. Should parents stop themselves from expressing their delight and admiration? Should parents treat children’s achievements and good behaviour as given, and therefore doesn’t need acknowledgement?
Is it wrong for a coach to tell a boy ‘well done for staying alert and catching that ball?’ I don’t think so. But I’m an adult, not a child. In one of his interview, Kohn said why should an adult feel that he needs to tell a child what the child is thinking or feeling. And in that, I agree with him. So, to put that into practice, I asked children whether they should be praised for their work or not. One 10-year old said, yes she wanted to be praised a little because she worked hard to achieve something. She added that she would feel a bit sad if her parents don’t acknowledge her work. Is this a result of over praising her in the past? Could be.
As for the idea that praising is bad for children, a 10-year old boy simply said, ‘It’s a lot of rubbish.’