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The dangers of praise -- how not to do a "good job!"

By Deborah Moore

What's wrong with praising youth? Actually, there's quite a bit wrong with it.

Countless research in the past 30 years shows overwhelming evidence that praising youth can harm their development. For example, in 1998, Mueller & Dweck wrote that praising intelligence can undermine their motivation and performance. While it may seem counter-intuitive and even downright unfriendly, the research is clear. Praise leads to unhealthy attitudes and behaviors in youth.

When we praise young people, it gives them the message that we -- adults -- are the judge of what comprises a good job. It does not allow youth to explore whether they think what they did was good and why. Praise takes the center of focus and control from youth and puts it back in the hands of adults.

The effects are surprisingly negative for youth: shorter task persistence, more eye checking with the teacher, a focus on maintaining their own image, a shut down in challenges, less self-motivation, and highly competitive behavior.

To combat our tendency to praise we need to discover the power of encouragement -- something distinctly different. Encouragement is more specific than praise. It focuses on the youth's efforts, plans and feelings. It gives youth the power to judge, to reflect, to value - not the adult. Again research tells us that youth who hear encouragement are more interested in learning than getting a good score or grade, can see challenges as opportunities to learn, and have better achievement in school. Say what? How have we ignored three decades of research on something so youth development-like? Good question.

In my teaching at the University of Minnesota, two ideas have raised the most reaction and controversy. One is the reality that poor-quality youth programs can do harm to young people, the other is the idea that praising youth can also cause harm. I think when we react strongly to things it is always time to reflect. Trust me -- this topic has provoked such strong reactions in my workshops that people have been ready to throw me down on the mat.

I encourage youth workers, parents, teachers and mentors, to explore our own reactions to the dangers of praise. If you want to look into it more, order Po Bronson's book Nurture Shock, read Alfie Kohn's article "Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job" or join a training session on praise vs. encouragement at the Youth Work Institute Annual Quality Conference. But be prepared to give up some commonly held wisdom and be prepared to duke it out.

Have you noticed the negative effects of praise? Do you have ideas for changing the way you verbally support youth learning? If you do, please share your ideas with all of us praise junkies who need the help.

-- Deborah Moore, former director, Youth Work Institute

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  1. Deborah, I think you're very bold to bring this up. At the heart of it, praise and encouragement are two different things. But it's easy to conclude that it's just a difference in wording. Just a twist in what you say or where you put the emphasis. Can you give an example of praise and of encouragement when let's say your daughter finally swims the length of the pool but does it thrashing and gasping for breath. I'm thinking praise may be common because it's so easy to say, "Good job!" Encouragement may take more thought. Can you help me here?

  2. Joyce,
    You are so right --- it is a very slippery slope and even when we are conscious of trying to avoid praise, we can turn a phrase in a way that is just hidden praise. One piece of advise may be to examine your motives when giving feedback to youth. Ask am I giving feedback to this young person because their behavior right now makes it easier for me? I have heard a lot of "good jobs" when it comes to cleaning up at the end of a program session. I think parenting teachers have it figured out in some practical ways. They do something called mirroring with kids. The idea is to simply mirror the excitement youth are experiencing in situations. It works well because you make an emotional connection and reflect the excitement, but without any judgement on their accomplishment. the accomplishment is theirs to feel pride in. You are there to share it -- not hand it out. In the situation you describe, you could also say - "Wow - you really stuck it out in that swim - what did you you do to keep going?" For youth workers - we can go to our "back pocket" tool of using good reflection strategies to push toward encouragement more easily. But undoubtedly, it is one of those small ideas that is really a big one, both philosophically and in practice.

  3. Deborah, Thanks for posting this. As I've told you, it intrigues me and I believe adults have fallen into praise without thinking much about it. I think all of us could benefit from real-life examples from the many places in which we connect with youth or connect with adults who work with youth. I also wonder what differences there are in trying to encourage young people when it is a short -term setting vs. when we have longer-term contact with them? Is there a place for moving toward encouragement in all the varied settings? I would love to hear examples or stories of what adults do to move us toward encouragement and more meaningful reflection. Lots of things to think about!

  4. Anne,
    You raise a real challenge when we are in short-term situations with youth, versus long-term programming time. I go back to the question, what am I trying to accomplish --- even in the short time I have with this young person? If I am trying to get the energy up - a valid strategy we often attempt when "good jobbing", I try to avoid words. Words can easily get me into to trouble because I am so immersed in the praise. I go instead for sounds. Try just a holler out of "Whoo Hoo" "Yeah!" It works on multiple levels including showing an adult way of being goofy and fun. But you have to make it work for you and who you are as a practitioner. I have no problem being silly, yes even in University settings. Ask my colleagues. Other ideas out there?

  5. This is an excellent topic. I have known a little about this topic, but not a lot about how to respond to it. For the past couple of years, I have tried to figure out how to not "good job" young people--in 4-H as well as in my family. What seems to work best for me is to ask youth themselves how they think something went, or felt, or etc. I find that they really engage in answering a simple, open-ended question, and that it invites them to reflect in a less formal way.
    I find that youth are pretty good judges of their own experiences. They have a sense of their own goals and will evaluate their experiences based on those goals. Sometimes they are kind of hard on themselves, especially when they are evaluating together as a group an event that they have led, and I can help them to figure out what DID go well so that they don't end up feeling overly discouraged. And in those rare instances where they are perhaps too "easy" on themselves, I encourage them to think about a certain aspect that maybe didn't go as well (WITHOUT telling them my thought on that aspect) or how it might have been different if they had tried this or that. I have also tried sharing an observation and asking them how they might do something differently (e.g. at a youth-led leadership event: "I noticed that a lot of the youth were not paying much attention to you during this part of the event; why do you think that was?" Then after response, ask, "What do you think you can do about that next year?").
    Just this past weekend, I attended an animal event in northern MN. At one point, a youth came out of a show ring, and all the adults around her were saying "Great job!" She gave them small smiles and and nodded to them but moved away from them. I didn't know her at all, but I asked her, "So, how did that feel to you?" She sat right down next to me to tell me all about her experience. She got the chance to reflect on her experience, and I made a new friend.

  6. Heidi,
    You so aptly point out where to keep the locus on control - with the young person him or herself. You give us a lovely way to both move to keep the focus on youth AND build relationship - keys to youth development. Thanks for adding your practical examples and wisdom about how those things can work together,