How to Motivate Kids Without Praise or Rewards

 minute read

If you were raised in America, chances are, praise is a common way to communicate especially to children. When my oldest was a baby, I recall the pediatrician telling us we should praise our son at least 20 times a day. 

This was a no-brainer. We didn’t only praise our son 20 times a day, but instead, it was probably near 50 times a day or who am I kidding? It may have been even more! He got praise for clapping his hands, crawling, smiling, taking a bite of food, and the list goes on. As I type all of that out I realize that we may have gone a little overboard. In my mind, we were WINNING as brand new parents. Fast forward a few years when my rambunctious “behavior” kid (who we had no idea is twice-exceptional and has ADHD) needed more than praise. We added sticker charts, a homemade rainbow reward clip-up (AND down) chart, reward and punishment jars complete with color-coded cotton balls, and we piled on the praise when we liked certain behaviors. 

However, I didn’t feel like I was winning as much when the big behaviors and disobedience kept happening. Then, when he went to school, all of the teachers’ punishments and rewards didn’t seem to help either. 

Then it happened! Shortly after my third son was born, we had to pass the time while my husband got LASIK surgery. I was pushing our littlest guy in the stroller around the medical complex listening to a podcast where Jessica Lahey of The Gift of Failure was being interviewed.The host and Jessica started talking about how praise can deter kids from accomplishments. My feet stopped immediately. I was in shock.  

Praise can actually deter kids from having good behavior?

They continued to talk about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Surprisingly, this was the first time I heard these two terms in this context. They threw around names like Dan Pink who wrote Drive, Alfie Kohn, the advocate for less homework and praise and the author of Punished by Rewards and Unconditional Parenting and Dr. Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset. Immediately, I opened my notes app on my phone to record that I needed to read books by these three authors. In fact, I started to read Dan Pink’s book the very next day. 

My eyes were finally opened! 

For my son to “behave”, I did not need to keep praising him. I put behave in quotations because I now view it very differently than I did before reading about intrinsic motivation and diving deep into research from the interpersonal neurobiology field. I now understand what behavior actually is. That’s a post for another day, but it has to do with the nervous system, biochemicals, sensory input, and many other factors. 

Did I Just Hear That Praise Was Bad? 

Back. Up. The. Train. Praise can demotivate kids? There was a cacophony of thoughts running through my mind…

I’m not supposed to praise my kid?

How else are they going to be confident?

...but my kids need to know when they’re doing something I like…don’t they?

But, but, but….

When I thought about how a child doesn't need to be told, good job, because when they do a good job it is self-evident, the puzzle was beginning to come together. Instead, there are many more useful phrases that you can use that will encourage your child and spark that intrinsic motivation. Their valid points made me thirsty for the results of all the research done on praise. And more importantly, it had me thinking about how we, adults who parent, interact or teach kids, can make the shift from turning our praise into everlasting encouragement? I do have to say this shift has been incredibly difficult for me and especially for my husband. We just can’t help but “good job” our kids to death.

Thankfully they’re still alive.

What has been put to death, however, are our sticker charts.

The Difference Between Praise and Encouragement

To start, we need to establish that praise and encouragement are not necessarily the same thing. Vicki Hoefle’s article on pbs.org provides a very thought-provoking definition of encouragement,

“It is an observation, an acknowledgment, a statement which focuses on effort, improvement of choice, and it helps to promote self-esteem and a sense of well-being, confidence, insight, and resilience.”

Whereas praise may leave us with nowhere to go when there is a similar situation resulting in a negative outcome. Praise is typically a blank statement of opinion. According to the dictionary, the definition is, “The expression of approval or admiration for someone or something.” The word that should jump off the screen here is approval. Do you see the difference? Do you see how praise could (oftentimes unintentionally) be detrimental to a child’s confidence? It can cause our kids to be dependent on our approval.

Three Prenda students working autonomously through reading curriculum.
Three Prenda students working autonomously through reading curriculum.

Not All Praise Is Bad

I have good news! We should still use positive communication with our kids but with intentionality around the words we use. In The Strength Switch by Dr. Lea Waters, she references a longitudinal study (this is research done over several years) conducted with late elementary to high school age kids on the effects of positive communication. Astoundingly, they found that low levels or the absence of positive communication had a greater risk of brain alterations. This led to kids being more susceptible to depression. The parents didn’t negatively talk to their kids, they simply didn’t use enough positive words or ideas when communicating with them.

Whereas, the kids who received high levels of positive communication had brain alterations that were associated with the enhancement of capacity for learning, decision making, social skills, and emotional functioning. The types of positive communication that were used followed patterns that were: 

  • Approving
  • Validating
  • Affectionate
  • Humorous
  • Pleasant
  • Caring

Doesn’t that encourage you to use positive language with children? I know it does for me! Our words truly are POWERFUL! And something Dr. Waters says a few times in the book that has really stuck with me is, “Where attention goes, energy flows.”

Types of Praise

Did you know there are actually different types of praise? I thought praise was just praise! Nope! There is praise that communicates, “I’m here to encourage you” and then there’s praise that communicates, “you need my approval or you need to impress me.” Alfie Kohn states, "Clearly, it is worth reconsidering the use of praise if it turns out to be something we need to say more [for our own benefit] than something they need to hear.”

Preach it, Alfie! The goals of praise are related to performance, enjoyment, promoting appropriate behavior, and motivation.

Generic Praise

These are generic positive statements such as, “good job”, “way to go”, “perfect”, “great work”, et cetera. 

There is a big problem with this type of praise. Can you guess what it is? It’s not attached to what the child or student did that was good, positive, helpful or beneficial. This makes it harder for him or her to do the same thing with the same kind of success. It focuses on the outcome instead of the process. If you really look at why we “good job” our kids to death is because we think we are reinforcing behavior. However, the research shows the reverse is true. Unintentionally, we could be sending discouraging messages because they take away from the effort our kids are putting in. 

Rewarding expected behaviors comes off as judgment. In "Unconditional Parenting", Alfie Kohn uses the example of saying “good job” to a child who is swinging on the playground. I can hear his sarcasm as I read what he writes. "It’s gravity, for goodness sake!" Oh, I can’t even begin to tell you what we have praised our kids for doing. 

Person Praise

When the praise is directed at what the kid's innate qualities are, this is called character or person praise. Examples include calling your child smart, responsible, helpful, or generous. In Dr. Carol Dweck’s work on mindset, she has found that person praise can lead to a fixed mindset in regard to achievement.

In Carol Dweck's findings:

  • If children don't hold up to the standard of what they’ve been called - smart, intelligent, good, amazing, and so on, then they can’t see it objectively as to what they can improve upon. Instead, they tend to think the opposite is true.
  • Person praise typically leaves a person to not try as hard. The child will inadvertently stay away from challenges just to maintain the label he or she has been given. 
  • It is a short-term feel-good tactic when kids are succeeding, but it affects their resilience in a negative way when they face setbacks later in life.

In studies of person praise at home, Dr. Dweck has found that with praise specific to morals, kids do have the growth mindset that we want to encourage. When my kids pack their bags for camping (by themselves!), I will point out how they are being responsible. One time, during our trip, my middle son pridefully pulled his pajamas out of the closet so he could put them on after his shower and said,  “Look, mom! I’m being responsible again.” Pointing out what his actions are displaying, this encourages my boys to continue with those behaviors.

Process Praise

This type of praise focuses on the actions of the child. It praises the child for his or her effort, improvement, technique, or strategy. It's praising the behaviors we want to see again. For achievement, this is the type of praise needed to cultivate a growth mindset. It makes our kids feel good about their choices, help them see what it takes to be successful so they can do it again, and it can develop optimism and resilience for future outcomes.

Kids can become competent by realizing what happens when they do something positive instead of being told about what happens.The one thing we have to be cautious about this type of praise is with our perfectionist son. Because of his mentality, process praise can sometimes demotivate him like other kids whose core beliefs are this way.

How to Use Praise That ENCOURAGES Kids

Lastly, praise that is a bit of a hybrid that Dr. Lea Waters developed is what she calls strength-based praise. This works best with my kids because it combines both person-praise and process-praise transforming it into encouragement. It’s quite simple! You praise both character strengths (person praise) and how the strengths were used (process praise). Here is an example: “Scotty! You were very responsible (PERSON-PRAISE) for packing your clothes by doing it all yourself without being asked (PROCESS-PRAISE). You used your ability to organize (RECOGNIZING THE STRENGTH) to get your clothes packed in time for our trip.”  

What Strength-Based Praise Does

  • Acknowledges actions? This helps them understand what they did well so they can do it again.
  • Acknowledges strengths such as ability, talent, skills, and positive personality traits to recognize the inner assets the child has brought to the situation. You’re showing your child how his strengths work, not just what they are.

“I believe this is because, in the more natural setting of the home, where parents [or teachers] likely use a mix of praise over a period of years as kids pass through various phases of identity formation and skills development, it’s the blend of praise that happens dynamically and organically over time that constructs a growth mindset. " - Dr. Lea Waters

By making this small change, I see kids take greater pride in what they do. In turn, they tend to repeat those behaviors like the research shows! Magic! Children can acknowledge what they need to make good choices and to be good humans. GOALS!

Put the Focus on What THE CHILD Thinks

Something else I found in regards to praise was in the book, The Me, Me, Me Epidemic: A Step-By-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World. by Amy McCready. Instead of focusing on your own opinion on what your kids (or students) do, flip it to see what THEY think. Trust issues emerge when a child is continuously given approval and other people’s (especially adults’) opinions. It teaches kids to constantly look to others instead of relying on their own judgment. 

This is especially true when the statement isn’t even true like telling your child who is awful at basketball that she is the best basketball player on the planet. Can you envision it? Sally just played her first basketball game, was benched most of the game and when she did go in, she barely got the ball. She comes running to the bleachers where you sit and you say, “You were SO AMAZING!!” Empty praise + an untruthful statement doesn’t usually motivate a child. 

An easy way to flip this is to ask a question instead of imposing your opinion. Here’s a great example, “What do you think about the project you just created?"

A great time to do this is during a Family Meeting.

When I hear parents asking questions and getting the child’s opinion instead of imposing their own, it’s amazing to see how that child no longer needs that affirmation every single time he or she does anything. Instead, motivation and self-confidence emerge from within. “We want our kids to learn to measure their behavior by their own standards. Learning to set their own standards and being the judge of their own behavior is what actually builds positive self-esteem - not shallow “you’re the best!” from another person.” - Amy McCready

And honestly, I recently have started reading, “Gather, Hunt, Parent” by Michaeleen Doucleff and I guess self-esteem is totally something Americans made up. That’s a different topic for another day! What’s important to understand though is that when kids don’t have to rely on other people’s opinions, they can learn and grow in big ways. 

Become a Sportscaster

One of the easiest ways to make sure you are encouraging instead of giving empty praise is to repeat what the kid just did. You are acknowledging what they are doing without attaching any opinion to it which in turn, encourages them. For example, while I was visiting a Prenda microschool, I witness a Guide using this very strategy probably without even knowing she was using any kind of strategy! 

The kids were making backdrops for an upcoming play they had been preparing for. A few of the younger students pulled out cardboard and started to cut and rip it to make different shapes. The Guide got down onto their level and simply said something like, “I see you are cutting the cardboard. You are using the scissors the correct way. Your hard work will help the other students with the props.” No opinions were shared but yet I’m sure those statements really encouraged the girls to keep up the good work. 

How to Make the Change from Praise to Encouragement

With all the information given above, here is a list of the practical things we can do to make the switch from praise to encouragement.

Focusing On Strengths and Process

  1. Acknowledge the child’s effort or process - Process praise is a great way to encourage any child!
  2. Point out the behaviors that you want to be repeated in the future AND include the strength they used. 
  3. Discover your child’s core character traits and strengths so they’re easy to point out during the moment. Pssst, check out the Via Character Strengths Survey to discover exactly what those strengths are. 
  4. Avoid praising an innate characteristic. The research supports we should avoid praising areas such as intelligence, appearance, athleticism or creativity. Instead, point out areas where they do have control such as effort, attitude, responsibility, integrity, focus (unless they have attention deficits), perspective, compassion, respect, love, humility, etc. Instead of saying, “Wow you are so smart”, praise how much effort the child puts into learning.
  5. Connect the child’s behavior to how it affects others

Other Tips to Make the Shift from Praise to Encouragement

  1. Eliminate the labels – It’s okay to point out the strength your child used to do a task but make sure it’s partnered with how they used that strength or trait.
  2. Describe the behavior – Become a sportscaster and “report” the action or behavior they just did.
  3. Ask questions – Instead of making a blank statement, ask how they are able to do the task or how they feel about the project.
  4. Be truthful and authentic – You can over-encourage by not being completely honest. Kids can sniff this out from a mile away.
  5. Shift the focus from “I” to “You” – Instead of, “I’m so proud of you.” Turn it into, “You must be so proud of yourself.”
  6. Put a greater focus on the journey than the destination – Instead of only celebrating the end result such as the dance recital or playoff game, connect that to the behavior that helped them get there.

The Change We've Seen In Our Home

Once we started to make the switch from empty praise (and rewards), we have actually seen our kids become intrinsically motivated to help out…most of the time! They feel part of our family and like they are contributing to something greater than themselves AND they don’t have the craving to constantly be told how awesome they are. The research is right!

One bonus result is that I’ve overheard my kids praising each other’s efforts and encouraging their friends in ways that really make them feel good or want to repeat that behavior.

Now that deserves a happy dance.

Don't forget to share this post!