Rewards are an inherent feature of behaviorism, a school of thought which posits that we are influenced by our external environment alone. It does not take into account the inner life of kids. Their thoughts, their frustrations, their very identities are ignored. Behaviorism seeks to change children’s behavior through external forces, including various forms punishment and rewards. One of those forms (of punishment or rewards… depends on how it’s received) is praise. “Good job!” we might say to a child to push them toward a result we desire. I’m heavily conditioned to use praise by my culture here in the United States. It is a moment-by-moment battle to stop my mouth from dishing out quick and empty motivators. What’s so wrong with these phrases, though? Let’s look at a few.
I’m so proud of you!
You can do it!
They all sound lovely and encouraging and the truth is they are. To a point. But, it’s the backside of these phrases that can harm our kids. I’m so proud of you! and Great work! communicate our excitement that our children have fulfilled our expectations of them. They are moral judgments that kids will continue to try to maintain to keep us happy. Well, that is, until they stop caring when the reward of praise becomes exhausting or demotivating. You can do it! looks harmless enough until you realize it represents a parent informing a child about their abilities. We can understand how dismissive it is to tell a crying child, “You’re ok,” rather than offering empathy. It erases the child’s inner feelings and minimizes their struggle. By the same token, while we may think You can do it! communicates our confidence in our child’s competence, in reality, it sets them up for an impossible outcome. If my child fails, does that mean I’ve lied to them? Does it mean I don’t respect them? What’s the end result?
The Power of Noticing
There is an alternative that works to foster intrinsic motivation: noticing. Noticing can be a simple thank you, It helps a lot when you carry groceries in with me. Thank you! Noticing can be paying attention to the simple, every day things, You’re working so hard on that drawing. I’d love to hear about it! Noticing can be empathetic support, Scoring a goal is really challenging. I am right here with you. Noticing is highlighting and acknowledging the values or the effort or the struggle without attributing a moral zero-sum game to them.
Now, when I’ve talked about praise as problematic before, I’ve gotten some pushback over our often involuntary responses to the happiness that flow from us when our children are succeeding at the things that are important to them. Do I think that smiling at a child or clapping in excitement or happily exclaiming Good job! is going to destroy our children’s intrinsic motivation? Absolutely not. When we talk about a “reward” in the context of peaceful parenting, what we mean is a reinforcer that artificially manipulates a child into behaving in a way we prefer. We run into trouble when the strategy we employ to motivate our children becomes a pattern of manipulation rather than genuine connection and the intent to notice.
I’m especially partial to the phrase, You did it!, to express my joy when my children accomplish goals they’ve set out from themselves. It’s my way of noticing their effort by stating a fact and leaving it at that.
The Power of Not Noticing
As we carefully and purposefully speak to our children’s intrinsic motivation, we have to know when enough is enough. Have you ever seen a child’s exuberance deflate when a parent comments on what they’re doing? I certainly have in my own children. When I overstep bounds and interject my thoughts onto my children, it can be an invasion into their bubble of privacy. Any time we interact with our children, we impose our own values. For better or worse, most of us adults value things like rightness, progress, and success. But, these values aren’t superior to wrongness, stopping, or failure. Think of all the wonderful things that happen in the space of wrongness, stopping, and failure. We learn by trial and error. We pause to rest and to reflect. We know when to move on because something isn’t working. These are also critical lessons children need to learn and they can’t do that when we compulsively push them away from the very spaces they need to reside in.
Healing Hearts Play Therapy posted a beautiful sentiment around children’s need for freedom of expression without adult over-involvement:
It’s very easy for us to jump in and teach. Although, often children need time to express their thoughts freely. It’s ok if they don’t know what to do and it’s ok for them to feel they need direction.
When we continually teach and correct children, they learn to always look for direction. The more children use their own thoughts, the more they build up their intrinsic motivation and self belief. Having time to be creative with no direction is such a healthy process and supports children’s emotional wellbeing.
For me, the simplest way to know when my comments are invited is to wait to be invited. When my children include me in their play and in their efforts in some way, those are the times I can be pretty sure it’s ok to share encouragement and love. I try to avoid interrupting my children to tell them what I think. Sometimes this method works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, I am quick to apologize and let them know I won’t interrupt again. See what happens there? I learn from my wrongness. Children have a way of enforcing their boundaries in a straightforward, genuine way when adults allow them to. So, let them, y’all.