Praising children – it’s not as straightforward as it seems!

Published Categorized as behaviour management, emotional literacy, self esteem, Uncategorized

Mmm. Brace yourself for a more involved post than usual…..

During my very first encounter with two educational psychologists, many years ago, when I was a fresh-faced, newly qualified teacher, I was asked if I had considered praising the child they had come to observe. To a teacher, that was like asking someone if they breathed. I might sound a bit scathing but it wasn’t overly useful!

There is no doubt praise generally works in the classroom and is a quick tool for getting compliance, in the main. Catch a child doing the ‘right ‘thing, gush praise at them and before you know it, the whole class is doing the same in the hope they receive the same. (It’s funny that this might be seen as manipulative if we did it with adults!)

However, over the years, I have fine-tuned my views on praise. My fine-tuning started with the need for praise to be specific. ‘You’re really good at coming up with unusual ideas’ was much better than ‘well done’ and increased a child’s awareness of their strengths. But, since developing my understanding of Carl Roger’s personality theory, I have decided there is a potential downside to praise but it needs some explaining and it’s not completely clear cut.

You see, if you praise a child, that is received as approval. That gives a clear message that something they did is acceptable. That sounds OK doesn’t it? But by subtle implication, therefore, all those things that don’t get praised, or that get rejected, are disapproved of. And it’s hard for a child to receive disapproval as anything other than a rejection of them and who they are. (I will add there are ways this can be done so it feels like much less of a rejection but I will get onto that briefly later).

Because children are born instinctively wired to bond with the adults in their lives, they arrive into the world generally compliant. If they start receiving approval and disapproval, this seems like a clear-cut tool for understanding what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’: approval = do more of it, and disapproval = don’t do it. Approval and disapproval are evaluative judgements about what you do and can result in you moulding your behaviour in a perpetual quest for approval. At this point I can see praise could still sound like a only positive thing.

However, approval and disapproval can be damaging, especially if this is mostly what a child receives. The ultimate preservation of a child’s self-esteem comes from adults that make that child feel loved for who they are, not what they do or don’t do. A child always navigating approval and disapproval will be left with a sense that they are only lovable if they do this – or don’t do – that! The essence of who they are, themselves, feels like it’s not enough. It can seem that there’s a whole list of provisos before love will be forthcoming! And this won’t be overly conscious either for the adults or the children. We were nearly all brought up with approval and disapproval such that it feels completely normal!

A helpful example I heard someone give years ago was that of a child drawing all over the wall. Adults don’t generally want their children to draw on the wall and therefore most would issue a strong disapproval which could feel like a strong rejection – especially if the child was trying to make you happy by offering their ‘art’. The knack is to suggest to the child what needs to happen instead, in an impartial way. ‘That’s a great picture, but we need to draw on paper, next time.’ A young child, with good enough attachment, is very likely to comply.

In the instances (we are all only human after all) where we strongly shame a child out of doing something with a powerful disapproval, it is important, therefore, to prioritise reparation of the relationship and help the child feel that it is not them who has been rejected, just the behaviour. A hug will suffice in many situations! ( A warm and friendly chat will suffice in the classroom.)

The long-term result of approval and disapproval from the adults in our lives can be seen in most of us well into adulthood. For a start what the adults in our childhood approved and disapproved of were not always the ultimate, and perfect, guidance in morals and desirable behaviour! I am sure most of us can think of things our parents promoted as important but we have since come to reassess! But that aside….

Our self-construct (how we see ourselves) is usually composed of all those things that got approval. We have a need to see ourselves as the person who only does the ‘right’ things: the things that got approval. We might be unconsciously fearful of disapproval. Maybe our dad praised us for being clever, so it’s important to us that we come across as clever and we might feel shame if anyone implies we’re not. Maybe our mum praised us for being really helpful, so we are always conditioned to help – even when it is actually an unreasonable expectation and it means we’ve put our own needs at the very bottom of the list. And what we received disapproval for we might actually deny or suppress in ourselves because those aspects feel too shameful to show or indulge in.

The classic example is males and the urge to cry. If, as a child, a boy received strong disapproval for crying, or was praised for being brave and not crying, he’s unlikely to be able to express the emotion or urge to cry in an open and uncomplicated way and will have shut down this part of him. Disapproval and approval can make you deny and distort big parts of yourself, to yourself, in a need to maintain the self-construct you created and held on to because it’s what got approval. I appreciate I covered a lot there!

I will finally add, I look back on the years when I was first a teacher and I realise that although my understanding of any theory about praise was non-existent, I had intuited this need to preserve children’s self-esteem. I knew I needed to make children feel liked for who they were and not for what they did. Maybe it was because I had personally felt the rejection from disapproval so strongly in my own childhood.

I found it was easy to make children feel genuinely liked. You simply made them feel accepted, seen, heard and understood in interactions and that you enjoy their company. You genuinely care about their worries and you take pleasure in laughing when they want to make you laugh. You help them understand the world in a gentle way, you embrace the mistakes they make as learning opportunities and you are always enthusiastically happy to see them. Despite often teaching in schools where behaviour was challenging, I am quite sure this approach made ‘behaviour management’ so much easier – and what’s more – maintained children’s self-esteem.

(N.B. I also think that affective statements or I messages can be a gentle way of helping a child understand that their behaviour is having an impact on you without triggering a lot of shame.)