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The Secrets to Raising a Smarter Child
- By Inderbir Sandhu, Ph.D


Rewards and Praise: The Poisoned Carrot - Part II

By Robin Grille

Why are praising and rewarding so popular?

Rewards are an easy way out, easier than trying to understand why a child is, as many like to glibly call it, "misbehaving". For example, why bother to find out why a child refuses to go to sleep at our convenience, (is he afraid? is she feeling lonely? is he still hungry? etc.) if we can simply reward him or her with a trinket for going to bed on time? It feels easier to fudge over the underlying problem by using a bribe. This gives the child the clear message that we are not interested in how he or she feels. Worse still, we risk overlooking a serious emotional problem. Rewards and praise can be a gimmicky quick-fix that ignores the child as a whole person.

Rewards work well for getting children to do something that they don't naturally want to do, for the short-term only. This immediate behavior change rewards us, and keeps us addicted to rewarding. The negative consequences of rewards and praise don't materialize until later, so we fail to recognize rewards and praise as the culprit.

But children do need acknowledgment, and positive feedback. What can we do instead of praise them?

Often we want to express our delight and appreciation for our children; who they are as individuals, and the amazing things they do. Appreciation is different from praise because it is not manipulative. Manipulative praise, as opposed to spontaneous expressions of appreciation or acknowledgment, is loaded with the covert expectation that the child do the praiseworthy act again. Most children can sense this; they can feel the difference between genuine acknowledgment, and a deliberate strategy to reinforce their behavior. So, how do we give our children positive feedback?

Avoiding praise or rewards does not mean holding back the love and delight we feel for our children, nor our instinctual desire to encourage them - far from it! It is perfectly possible to join in with our children and celebrate every step of their unfolding, without being manipulative. Here's a few suggestions for how to acknowledge and encourage your children to your heart's content - and theirs - while avoiding the use of praise.

Focus the child on his/her own pleasure at achieving.
Instead of lavishing children with congratulations, it's better if they focus internally on the pleasure they derive from accomplishment. Children are naturally thirsty to achieve, learn and conquer. They are born with an insatiable zest for mastery, and each new attainment fills them with delight. It is this self-enjoyment which provides the greatest fuel for perseverance and further learning. When you see your child do something new, it can be wonderfully encouraging and supportive to say: "you look like you enjoyed that!", or: how did it feel to do that?". "I'm glad you did that, you look happy with yourself!".

Help him/her to self-evaluate.
Whenever possible, it is a good idea to ask your child about their own self-evaluation. For instance: "how do you like your drawing?", "are you happy with how that piece fits into the puzzle?".

Ask them about their inner experiences.
Say, for instance, your child reads you a story he just composed. After sharing how the story made you feel, you could ask: "How do you feel about the story you wrote?", "How did it feel to write it?", "Did you enjoy telling it?", "How did you come up with those ideas for your story?". There are few things so nourishing to your child's self-esteem, and so enriching to your relationship with him, than your interest in his inner world of feeling and imagination.

Use "I" statements, instead of labeling the child.
Your appreciation touches your child more deeply when it is expressed in terms of your feelings. For instance: "I like the colors you chose!", or "I love how you sang that song!" - instead of: "what a good drawer you are!", or "gee you're a good singer". Avoid labeling statements like: "Good boy for sharing your toys!". Say instead: "thanks for sharing with your friend, that felt good to him - and to me". Focus on your feelings, not on a moral or quality-oriented label. An "I" statement keeps you from holding a position of power over your child. It creates an honest and fulfilling connection between you while not interfering with their experience of themselves.

Comment on the behavior, not on the person.
Feedback and acknowledgment are definitely important. Imagine your child has just played you a new piece she has learned on the piano. Instead of saying: "What a good player you are!", you could tell her how much you enjoyed the piece. Better still, be specific. Tell her what in particular you liked about her playing (e.g. the passion or emotion, the beautiful melody, how carefully she played, her sense of rhythm, etc.)

How do we know when our positive comments are manipulative?

Ultimately, the problem is not about the perfect choice of words, or how much or when to make positive comments. When you do the right thing for the wrong reasons, it ends up being the wrong thing. Since the problem is one of intent, there is no other way but to become good examiners of our own motives. This takes practice, and the courage and humility to look within. When giving a positive comment, are you trying to seduce the child into pleasing you again, into making Mama or Papa proud? Or are you genuinely glad to see the child accomplish something that pleases him, or genuinely delighting in her being? Therein lies a paradox: that which is not intended to reinforce, but merely to "connect", is the most reinforcing.

Is praise ever OK?

There is no need to muzzle ourselves, praise is wonderful when it is not used manipulatively. For instance, rewards should not be promised in advance, nor guaranteed every time the child does something you like. Positive feedback is best for your relationship with your child when it is offered spontaneously, when it springs from your heart, and not as a deliberate ploy to get more of what you want from the child.


Praising and rewarding are deeply ingrained habits, particularly as that's how most of us were raised and educated. It may take practice to replace them with appreciation and acknowledgment, but the latter feels more fulfilling, and can bring you and your child closer.

Children can certainly be made to do what they don't want or love, by offering them approval, praise or other rewards. But this does not make them happy. Happiness can only be derived from doing what is intrinsically rewarding to us, and this does not require others' applause. Do we want kids to become reward-addicts, crowd-pleasers, and recognition-seekers, or do we want them to be self-motivated, faithful to themselves, following their own interests? If the latter is true, then the way is not to praise them but to appreciate them. At school, when the work is made intrinsically interesting, enjoyable, meaningful and relevant, this works better than reward systems to improve both the quality and the commitment to the work.

Children are born with an enormous desire to learn. They also have an innate capacity for honesty, empathy and considerateness. These qualities come forward as a result of our guidance, our role-modeling, and our appreciation. Rewards and praise for "good behavior" or "good performance" simply get in the way.


This article is an extract from Robin Grille's upcoming book: 'Parenting for a Peaceful World', available in late April, 2005 at: Robin Grille is a Sydney-based psychologist. He has a private practice in individual psychotherapy and relationship counseling, and can be contacted by telephone at 61-2-9999-0035 and by email at . Reprinted with permission of the author.

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