The Talaris Institute
In the Sept. 14 edition of the New York Times, author Alfie Kohn wrote about the potentially detrimental effects of praise on young children. In the article, both positive reinforcement (praise) and punishment through withdrawal of attention (including time out) were described as manipulations intended to shape children’s behavior to please the adults in their life, regardless of the feelings, goals, and needs of the child. Kohn calls for parents to love their children unconditionally, instead of sending them repeated messages that they are lovable only when they behave in certain ways.
So what’s a parent to do? Let’s start with praise. Indeed, other researchers have supported the notion that heaped-on praise may not only become meaningless to young children, but may in fact cause them to become less motivated. However, like medicine, the difference between helping and hurting seems to depend on the dosage and the timing. In a review of more than 20 years of research, Jennifer Henderlong & Mark Lepper (2002) concluded that when praise is in response to a child’s effort and accomplishments it helps to build confidence. Praise in this context is not conditional affection, but rather affirmation to the child of their genuine strengths. Stanford professor and author William Damon agrees that praise, to be worthwhile, needs to support the child’s innate excitement about their own developing accomplishments. Automatic or empty praise is at best ignored, and at worst confusing, but appropriate praise helps a child feel more confident through the inevitable experiences of trial and error that make up the toddler and pre-school years. Dr. T. Berry Brazelton advocates what he calls a “low-key” approach to praise, which emphasizes the fact that the parent is pleased (but not surprised) when their child is competent and kind. He writes that too-exuberant praise may indeed be a misguided attempt to control the child’s behavior in the short term, rather than support their inner motivation.
Even Dr. Harvey Karp, a proponent of praise, advises parents to think about what they are saying and why, and to save the big accolades for accomplishments that are truly special to the child. An excellent suggestion from Karp is to think about praise as one of several types of affection you can give your child; not the only kind, or even the best. He writes, “praise should mostly be made up of lots of attention, gentle smiles, quiet compliments, brief descriptions of her activity; a handful of stronger, bigger praise; and an occasional over-the-top celebration to spice up the mix.” (p. 148). What Dr. Karp is introducing here is the concept of praise as part of a larger category of positive reinforcement. Simply put, positive reinforcement is a way of identifying to children which behaviors are most appropriate. It is based on the theory that behaviors that make us feel good will be repeated, while those that are unrewarding will not (Sigler & Aamidor, 2005). The objection to using positive reinforcement in the Kohn article mentioned above is that adults might be manipulating children’s behavior to make their own lives easier, without regard for the child’s experience. However, it is the job of parents to show their child better, increasingly challenging ways to be a part of their family and the community. Within the context of a secure, supportive relationship, this learning brings additional benefits and opportunities for the child.
What about letting children know when we’re NOT happy with their behavior? Is there a way to set boundaries that doesn’t make our love seem to depend on their most recent behavior? They key to this part of the puzzle may be rooted in attachment theory. Toddlers are simply not equipped to figure out on their own the best way to interact, to take care of themselves, and to get their needs met. What they are equipped to do is let their caregivers know what those needs are. While it is up to a parent to let their child know what kind of behavior is OK and what is not OK, this happens best in the context of understanding the child’s needs, and supporting them in developing the skills to cope with disappointment, to build relationships with others, and to keep trying when a new skill or ability doesn’t come easily right away. Thus, setting limits on behavior should not equal rejection or the withdrawal of affection. Brazelton writes: “A child needs limits and nurturance; neither one alone is sufficient for a child to grow.” (p. 41). We know that secure attachment is built over time by ordinary, caring behaviors that teach a child to trust their caregivers to be kind, as well as to help them when they get in over their heads. In the context of secure attachment, created by repeated experiences of being noticed, understood, and having rifts in the relationship repaired in a caring way, there is no reason to fear that letting children know when their behavior is not what we want will result in the feeling that they are unloved or unlovable.
Specifically, “Time-out”, is cited in the Kohn article as a punishing withdrawal of affection, and the use of this technique is discouraged. However, other practitioners disagree. For example, Dr. William Sears, known for advocating a style of parenting that places a premium on the parent-child bond, includes time-out as a potentially beneficial tool for teaching young children to manage strong emotions and understand limits. He emphasizes that time-out is only effective when it is in contrast to a lot of “time-in” – positive, mutually rewarding interaction between parent and child. Good time-out strategies always take the age of the child into account, and include both a before-and-after technique for helping your child use the time-out as a calming strategy. In addition, a parent’s role is to be calm and present during and/or after the time-out to support their child in recovering from their overwhelming feelings and let them know that their most treasured relationship is still safe.
Although the meaning and value of praise may be disputed, the suggestion that children need to know they are loved, even when they fail or disobey, is one that few in the field of Child Development would argue with. The Kohn article concludes with this statement: … “Unconditional acceptance by parents as well as teachers should be accompanied by “autonomy support”: explaining reasons for requests, maximizing opportunities for the child to participate in making decisions, being encouraging without manipulating, and actively imagining how things look from the child’s point of view.” The effectiveness of explanations and the degree of participation by the child will vary by age, however, the main point of this section is well taken. We can’t overestimate the positive impact on a child’s development when parents provide a consistent daily environment in which the child knows that their needs are listened to and understood, and in which they are accepted and loved. In that context, most experts in the field of child development seem to agree that both praise and strategies such as time-out can be used thoughtfully to support healthy development.
- Brazelton, T.B. & Sparrow, J.D. (2001). Touchpoints Three to Six: Your child’s emotional and behavioral development. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.
- Damon, W. (1995) Greater Expectations: Overcoming the culture of indulgence in our homes and schools. New York: The Free Press.
- Henderlong, J. & Lepper, M. (2002). The Effects of Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 128, No. 5, p. 774-795.
- Karp, H. (2004). The Happiest Toddler on the Block. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.
- Kohn, A. When a Parents ‘I love you’ means ‘Do as I say”. The New York Times, September 14, 2009.
- Sears, W. 10 Time-Out Techniques. Downloaded on 10/8/09 at http://www.askdrsears.com/html/6/t061900.asp
- Sigler, E. & Aamidor, S. (2005). From positive reinforcement to positive behaviors: An everyday guide for the practitioner. Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 32(4), pp. 249-253.