When working or being with children, praising the child, making them feel good about themselves is something nearly everybody does. So when I am working as a play therapist and I tell parents that I neither praise or blame the child, I can get a startled look. I think they completely agree with not blaming a child, as that is so detrimental to a child’s self esteem, but when it is such common practice to praise, it is bound to surprise parents. Yes, my work is about helping the child become more confident about who they are, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need praise to do that. I read a book many years ago, that has always left a mark on how I work with children. It was called ‘Punished by Rewards’ by Alfie Kohn, which looks at how praise and rewards are not always a good thing.
When I trained to be a teacher, much of the psychological understanding I was given was in terms of behaviourism, or to help children achieve academically. Vygotsky, was one psychologist that underpinned much of my work with the idea of providing children with scaffolding to help them, support them, and then one day slowly you are able to take that support structure away and hopefully they will have learnt a new skill, and you are able to move that scaffolding on to something new. This is, and continues to be, a useful way of thinking for me personally and professionally.
Behaviourist theories look at how behaviours are learnt and this is what many practices in school look at to try and encourage all children to behave appropriately for the setting. Reward charts, are a classic example, and for some children they do work, BUT and it is a big but, they are not always successful, especially in the long term. Praise also fits into this style of psychology because by praising a child, you are teaching them to please you, and so looking for attention and which as a consequence can bring a feeling of failure if they do not get the praise they feel they deserve or need, especially if they have worked really hard.
An aspect of psychology that I learnt later in my career, is looking at the important of intrinsic and extrinsic values that people place on life. What I mean by these terms is that if you are motivated by intrinsic value, it is that you are motivated by what makes you feel good inside. Basically, you do something because you want to do it, for no other reason than for yourself and your own sense of achievement, happiness etc. By being extrinsically motivated, you are driven by what you will gain, for example, a prize, money, a title, the applause.
In my role as a play therapist, my work is based on the humanistic perspective of psychology. I am trying to help children have a better self-concept of themselves, have higher self-esteem, and achieve their full potential for them as an individual. I am interested in helping them focus on what is important for them, their intrinsic value. It is not easy trying to refrain from praising children, but it can help children to examine their actions and thoughts and feelings from a different perspective. Children coming to play therapy are not needing someone to inflate their ego, make them feel good. They have come to therapy to help examine and understand what is going on for them at that particular time in their lives and learn to understand it is simply ok to be themselves and learn to process their emotions in a safe way.
Praise and rewards do play a part in everyone’s life, and what a horrid existence it would be if you were never rewarded or appreciated for some of the achievements you make in life. However, be careful not to use rewards too often as if this is always the emphasis, will our children ever do anything because they want to and because it makes them feel good? If you are constantly dangling a carrot in front of their nose, that carrot becomes less of an incentive too, and the reward may also need to keep getting bigger and bigger. One carrot, turns to two, then a bag full etc, etc.
Think about when you do use praise. Just as physical rewards may have less of an incentive if you overuse them, so does praise. We want to encourage our children, and I do say to parents, ‘catch your child being good’, to help turn behaviours around, but don’t overload them. If you can’t use genuine praise, it is empty praise. Don’t just use ‘good girl/boy’, in passing or ‘clever boy/girl’. You need to think about what you want to say to them and turn it into something along the lines of ‘I’m proud of you because you didn’t give up even when you found it difficult,’ ‘you read that word without any help from me this time, you must be so proud of yourself.’ Make sure you are giving your child eye contact as well so they can see you mean what you are saying. Positive body language – a big smile, a hug, also goes a long way. By telling a child they are simply clever or being good, you are once again setting them up for failure – we don’t know everything, we are not always good. We all have things to learn, we all make mistakes at times and these are not bad things.