As a Special-Ed preschool teacher and mother to a rambunctious toddler, I am literally caring for small children every waking hour of the day. Through the haze of circle times, centers, wiping noses, and play-time, I hear myself spewing out line after line of praise to my students, almost like a broken record… “Great job!” “Nice putting your shoes on!” “Good walking to your station!”

The list goes on and on, and this only accounts for the time I am at school. The rest of the time is at home with my son…“Good job eating your dinner!” “You’re so smart!” “I like the way you …”

So what, you ask, is so wrong about praising children and acknowledging the things that they are doing right? Isn’t this how we are supposed to encourage good behavior?

Praise, by nature, is evaluative. It tells children what we like. Young children want our approval, which is why we see praise happening so often. Children want to please adults, so adults praise them for their good behavior so that children will continue to act how we want them to act.  

Praise only lasts as long as it is being given, and we often see that without it, children are not motivated to do the things for which they were once praised. In short, children become dependent on praise and are not building intrinsic motivation – the desire to do something simply because they want or like to do it.

We also see that children become less likely to feel proud of themselves if no one has expressed pride in them. Praise sends a message of conditionality because children have to “earn” it.

Alfie Kohn, a leading voice in education, states, “A child deserves to take delight in her accomplishments, to feel pride in what she’s learned how to do. She also deserves to decide when to feel that way. Every time we say, ‘Good job!’ though, we’re telling a child how to feel.”

What is the alternative? How can we help foster a sense of pride and accomplishment in our children without evaluating their every move? The answer is, encouragement!

Encouragement is unconditional. It helps children build intrinsic motivation because it is not evaluative. “You worked so hard at that” “You put your shoes on by yourself” “It was helpful when you…”

I am working hard at school and at home to re-phrase my comments to focus on the child’s perspective of a given task or activity, so that not every comment is evaluative.

The wonderful thing about encouragement is that it can be given in any circumstance, even when the child is not acting “good.” We can say things like, “Next time I know you can do it,” even if the child has not done something worthy of praise. Encouragement reminds children that we accept them always, not just when we think they are doing a “Good job.”

Here are some ways to encourage:

Use non-verbal signals

We can send children many messages through our expressions. Something as a simple as making eye contact and smiling or nodding your head is all children need to feel validated about what they are doing.

Say what you saw

A simple statement about what you saw. For example: “You put your dish in the sink, that was helpful.” Or, “You did it!” These phrases can tell your child that you noticed them, without evaluating their behavior.

Point out the child’s growth

One important way to encourage children is to point out how you notice their improvement over time. This tells children that you value progress, instead of expecting immediate success. This could be as simple as saying, “You remembered to use your walking feet!” or “Last week you were doing two swings on the monkey bars, and now you can do four!” Or, “You are doing it by yourself!” These kinds of statements bring the child’s attention to their success without passing judgment.

Consider your motive

Praise is not always bad. We should take the time to consider our motive behind it, though. Think about why you might be praising the child. Is it a genuine expression of enthusiasm or delight, or is it a desire to manipulate how the child will act in the future? Understanding this will help you to know how to respond.

Encouragement is the ultimate expression of our joy in our children, because it focuses on the joy itself, rather than judgment or evaluation.