In praise of Encouragement

by Michael Popkin

Research from De Montfort University in the UK showed that parents who praised their children five times each day saw an improvement in the child’s behavior. A “Five Praises Campaign” was even launched to help parents learn to be mindful of the need to offer encouraging words even when they themselves are feeling discouraged.

Some might be tempted to further this idea with rewards for positive behavior, be it gold stars on a chart or good old-fashioned cash. “Why not?” they say. “It will teach children to associate good behavior with good benefits.”

I’m not so sure about that.

First of all, I agree with the research findings, especially the emphasis on effort, not just results—and especially not hyped-up results.

However, any suggestion to turn this into a reward system is asking for trouble. It takes an intrinsically rewarding experience (parental encouragement or good praise) and turns into an extrinsically rewarded experience (money money money).

This is exactly the opposite of what even hardcore behaviorists know is best for children. We want to wean them away from extrinsic rewards and help them move towards intrinsic motivation for doing well and behaving ethically.

This is why in Active Parenting groups we stress ways to encourage children instead of to reward them. Encouragement is a much more subtle motivator. Ergo the child’s unconscious reasoning is less “I did it for the money” and more “I did it because it feels good.” When effort and achievement feel good, work becomes much more satisfying and people become much more productive.

Consider this classic story about the subtlety of encouragement:

A psychology professor once gave a lecture on using encouragement as a type of positive reinforcement. Afterwards some of his students decided to see if the technique would work—on him! Since the professor usually lectured from behind his lectern, they decided to see if they could use encouragement to get him to move away from his comfort zone.

They reasoned that professors are encouraged by students’ attention, so whenever their professor moved away from the lectern, they looked up, took notes, and either smiled or looked thoughtful as was appropriate. Whenever he drifted back towards the lectern, they looked away, fidgeted, and acted bored (i.e., discouraging behavior). By the end of the class period, the unsuspecting professor was lecturing in the middle of the stage, far away from the lectern. At this point the students burst out laughing and let him in on the joke.

Bottom line: Encouragement and positive praise are indeed helpful to children in many ways. Just don’t make it a blatant attempt to manipulate behavior with charts and tangible rewards. Keep it honest, sincere, and to the point, focusing on the effort and not the child.

To read more about ways to encourage children (and to avoid discouraging them) check out any of our Active Parenting programs for kids of any age.