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Small changes in what we say to our children can make a big difference in the way they  develop their independence, self-reliance, and creativity.

It’s a typical school morning, and already I’ve lost count of the number of times I hear parents tell their children, “Good job.” I’m standing in the school’s morning drop-off area. Your car pulls up, I open the door, and I happily offer a “Good morning.” Meanwhile, your child is working to unbuckle her seat belt, collect her lunch bag, and step out of the car. While she manages all of this, you say, “Good job! I love you!” Well, after all, who doesn’t feel enormous pride and love for their child? And when your child is successful, what’s wrong with praising?

Despite our common-sense beliefs, praised children (and adults) do less well than their intrinsically motivated peers (Kohn 2001; Kohn 2005). In fact, a diet of external motivation results with the opposite of what we intended. Instead of sustained academic achievement, praised children produce lower test results; instead of compliance, praised children may act out with resentment and exhibit behavioral issues. And it’s no different for us adults. Daniel Pink (2009) summarizes the situation like this:

“Too many organizations — not just companies, but governments and nonprofits as well — still operate from assumptions about human potential and individual performance that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science. They continue to pursue practices such as short-term incentive plans and pay-for-performance schemes in the face of mounting evidence that such measures usually don’t work and often do harm. Worse, these practices have infiltrated our schools, where we ply our future workforce with iPods, cash, and pizza coupons to ‘incentivize’ them to learn. Something has gone wrong.” (p. 15)

For several reasons, this is proving really, really hard to do. First, external praise and reward is imbedded into our cultural being. Praising children begins at a surprisingly early age, and its generic form is Good job! when very young children are praised for smiling, holding a spoon, using the spoon, holding a cup, and drinking from the cup.

Second, from continually hearing praise, we just know praise works just as we know its opposite, punishment and taking punitive action, works too. After all, we were raised with praise and with punishment, and it’s very likely that we will actively seek it or compensate for it when praise is withheld. And so, third, we are addicted. We are praise junkies. Praise surrounds us, and its forms permeate our lives both tangibly and imaginably. Who doesn’t smile, relax, and feel really good when told, Good job! Who doesn’t welcome a pay raise, and who doesn’t work harder to avoid being fired? In behavioral terms, this is known as operant conditioning.

We receive a stimulus, and then we respond. When we are reinforced for that response, we are likely to respond in the same way when we again receive the stimulus. For example, you tell your child it is bath time (a stimulus). She responds with a big smile and heads to the bathroom. Your pleased Good job should reinforce her cooperative response. The next evening, you again tell your daughter that it is bath time (a stimulus). She again smiles cheerfully and heads for the bath with your accompanying Good job! On the third evening, your daughter responds by screaming, No! Instead of praising her with Good job, you threaten to punish: “If you don’t come to the bath right now, I will not read you a story.”

Operant conditioning seems straightforward, but it is not. If she stops playing after your threat, what behavioral response did you just reinforce? If she continues to scream, and you offer another threat, what response did you just reinforce now? Kohn (2001) warns:

“Indeed, an impressive body of scientific research has shown that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Now the point isn’t to draw, to read, to think, to create—the point is to get the goody, whether it’s an ice cream, a sticker, or a ‘Good job!’”

The American Heritage Dictionary defines operant conditioning as: A process of behavior modification in which the likelihood of a specific behavior is increased or decreased through positive or negative reinforcement each time the behavior is exhibited, so that the subject comes to associate the pleasure or displeasure of the reinforcement with the behavior.

And conditioning is defined as a learning process in which an organism’s behavior becomes dependent on the occurrence of a stimulus in its environment.

In principle, conditioning is based on the idea that how we act is who we are. External rewards and punishments teach us how to act; the rewards and punishments reinforce or extinguish behavior. So, we should reward (praise) children for acting how we want. When they don’t act in ways we want, we should withhold the things they like. This is known as conditional love (Kohn, 2005).

We love children for what they do or don’t do and not who they are. Our children earn praise and rewards (love) according to external standards. And, we should never reward unacceptable behaviors with pleasant consequences. According to this system of beliefs, we should never do the following: Your child screams and throws her toys instead of taking her bath. When she calms down, you read her favorite story. Reading her favorite story would reinforce her screaming and throwing. Reading her favorite story is “giving in,” and your young daughter is now in control; she has conditioned you!

A powerful reinforcement or punishment is our use of love. If you do things I don’t like, I will withdraw my love and ignore you, put you in timeout, express my disapproval, or remove myself. Because children want our approval, these are forms of control and manipulation. When we withhold our love and approval, younger children experience anxiety. Older children may experience depression. Teenagers may lose touch with their real selves and pretend to be a person whom their parents would love. In sum, the more we offer children conditional love, the lower their self-perception of self-worth and self-esteem (Kohn, 2005).

A key word in the definition of conditioning is dependent.

Children become dependent on external motivation instead of satisfaction from the task or learning itself. Instead of reading for the enjoyment and sake of reading, children read for a sticker. They become dependent on someone else to know how they are doing. And if the sticker is withheld, why read? If someone else receives a sticker, why read? And if everyone receives a sticker, certificate, medal, or trophy, why bother?

Praising and rewarding children should work, but it does not. When the stimulus children have been conditioned to respond to is absent, children may be at a loss for what to do.

Learning from conditioning is very different than learning from creativity.

Becoming obedient from praise or punishment may also be temporary. Children stop doing tasks when there is no longer a reward or when the reward is of equal or lesser value. Children (and adults, too) can lose interest and then become less successful at tasks, even when rewarded for doing them. Other research suggests that when children are rewarded for doing something nice, they do not think of themselves as nice, and they are less likely to be helpful when they are not given rewards.

Children hear, “I love you, but ….” So, while a child may initially feel good from hearing your praise, they also become suspicious, uncertain, guilty, and dependent. They have learned to listen for the “but.” This is conditional love instead of unconditional love.

There is a world of difference between the bumper sticker that reads, “I am proud of my child who was student of the month,” and, “I am proud of my child” (Kohn, 2005).

We say Good job! so readily. Perhaps we’ve been conditioned to say “Good job.” How would you break this habit? What would you do if you stopped saying Good job? What would you say the next time your child shows you his picture? How would you express your delight and love? Kohn (2005) suggests:

“It’s harder to make sure children feel loved unconditionally than it is just to love them. It’s harder to respond to them in all their complexity than it is to focus just on their

behaviors. It’s harder to try to solve problems with them, to give them reasons for doing the right thing (let alone to help them formulate their own reasons), than it is to control them with carrots and sticks. ‘Working with’ asks more of us than does ‘doing to.’” (p. 118)

When we connect with children with unconditional love, we can respond with encouragement and gratitude. It’s bath time, and your child screams and throws her toys instead of taking her bath. You respond with empathy and connect with her feelings and needs. When she calms down, you read her favorite story. Instead of believing you are rewarding her tantrum behaviors, you attend to your child with understanding; her behaviors are expressions of unmet needs, intentions, feelings, and thoughts. After the story, you and your child can talk together about different ways to meet her needs and yours.

In keeping with unconditional love, encouragement and gratitude are two strong alternatives to praise and punishment. Montessori (1949/1994) endorses encouragement but with a word of caution.

“It makes us think of the first tottering steps of the baby, when he still needs to see an adult’s outstretched arms waiting to catch him, although he may already have within him the power to begin walking and of learning to do it perfectly. The teacher must then respond with a word of approval, encouraging him with a smile, like that of a mother to her baby …. Perfection and confidence must develop in the child from inner sources with which the teacher has nothing to do.” (pp. 250-251)

Once a child engages in an activity, Montessori (1949/1994) explicitly requires teachers (and parents too) to refrain from praise.

“The teacher, now, must be most careful. Not to interfere means not to interfere in any way. This is the moment at which the teacher most often goes wrong …. If, as she passes, the teacher merely says, “Good,” it is enough to make the trouble break out all over again. Quite likely, it will be another two weeks before the child takes an interest in anything else …. Praise, help, or even a look, may be enough to interrupt him, or destroy the activity.” (p. 255)

Gratitude is an essential alternative to praise, and as Mogel (2001) declares, it must be taught.

“In order to effectively teach children gratitude, we parents must start with ourselves. If you lift your mood by a trip to the mall or try to maintain your status by keeping up with the Ornsteins, your children will pick up the not-very-hidden message that acquiring things is a way to reward yourself, feel important, or cheer yourself up. Even if we manage to get our children to stop asking for so many things, they still won’t learn how to be grateful unless they see us practicing gratitude. No one is born feeling grateful; it’s an acquired skill.” (pp. 125-126)

Gratitude is expressed as a celebration of life. Gratitude is neither reward nor praise, and gratitude is not a judgment.  Gratitude is a system of feelings that tell us we have met our need to enrich and serve life (Rosenberg, 2003).

When your child shows you her picture, you can express an observation, your feelings, and your met needs: “When I look at your picture, I feel so happy, because I enjoy creativity.”

Expressing unconditional love, encouragement, and gratitude eliminates the detrimental effects of praise (and punishment). Children become independent and more able to develop their unique capabilities. Montessori (1949/1994) defines the role of the adult in guiding children to become independent in this way:

“[In the] relationship between teacher and child, the teacher’s part [is] to serve, and to serve well: to serve the spirit….The child has to acquire physical independence by being self-sufficient; he must become of independent will by using in freedom his own power of choice; he must become capable of independent thought by working alone without interruption….We have to help the child to act, will, and think for himself. This is the art of serving the spirit, an art which can be practiced to perfection only when working among children.” (pp. 256-257)


Kohn, A. (2001). “Five reasons to stop saying ‘good job!’ Young Children. Retrieved June 3, 2012, from
Kohn, A. (2005). Unconditional Parenting. Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. New York: Atria Books.
Mogel, W. (2001). The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. New York: Penguin Group.
Montessori, M. (1949/1994). The Absorbent Mind. Oxford, England: Clio Press.
Pink, D. (2009). Drive. The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books.
Rosenberg, M. B. (2003) Nonviolent Communication. A Language of Life (2nd ed.). Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press. n

Tomorrow’s Child/ Nov 2012/05