Saturday, July 31, 2010

Kids need our presence not our praise

My daughter Kayley just turned three, and she has recently discovered that she can say "Look at me, dad!" and I will always look.

This got me thinking about what she's not asking me. You know she's never said, "Praise me, dad!"

I talk about abolishing rewards and punishments all the time with parents, teachers and friends, and it is amazing how we can come to some agreement over abandoning tangible rewards like medals, bribes like cash, verbal threats and punishments like spanking or even grounding, but if there is a topic we can't agree on it's the use of praise.

There are some great people like Alfie Kohn and Carol Dweck who write about this stuff all the time. I wrote a bit of a summary on the topic called Pondering Praise.

In my experience, praise is less for the kids and more for the adults.

Praise is cheap; hence why it doesn't buy us very much.

But the less time a parent spends with their child the more likely they might try and buy back that lost presence with something like praise.

Our children need us to work with them. Play with them. Notice them. Be with them.

What the kids need is our presence not our praise.


  1. I think our presence is our praise. I am not sold on the notion that our interaction with people can be free of positive and negative messages. Praise is the act of making positive statements but actions can achieve the same end. Despite the binding nature of praise, is generally held that people are responsive to praise and will increase in self-esteem or confidence. The attention and response we offer achieves the same thing: increased self-esteem. It also contains the same pitfall. "Look at me dad!" What if you don't? What is the impact then? Or what if you do? Have you created a new condition in her mind? I must perform for dad in order to hold his attention. Students in the classroom do this all the time.

    On a number of occasions over the years my three children caught me watching them in admiration. "Why are you looking at me dad?" How to explain that they are a wonder to me and a source of joy. They are in their twenties and I am still delighted with them.

  2. To your point about praise being less for the kids and more for the adults, here's a related excerpt from my blog post, Attention Deficit: The Other Kind(

    "The power of praise in meeting students’ attention needs has more to do with how you deliver it than how often you deliver it. In fact, many teachers overuse praise to the point where it loses its impact and even backfires. One common praise pitfall is the use of manipulation packaged as praise, as when teachers say, “I really like the way groups 1 and 4 are sitting” when what they really mean is “I’m infuriated by the way groups 2 and 3 are stirring.” The problem is that students have a sixth sense that tells them whether what’s coming out of your mouth is what’s really on your mind. And look out when it isn’t, since disingenuousness spells disaster."

  3. I think Alan and Coach both make a good points--it's about giving people (kids) your actual, authentic, interested attention. Joe's point is a good one; looking up from your cell phone occasionally doesn't quite cut it.

  4. You make important points, and I'm 100% on board with the value of parenting and teacher "presence". But let's not throw the baby out with the bath water... CERTAINLY genuine praise has value as children learn and grow... if nothing else, it can direct their attention to "what works".

    Isn't it the manner and context in which feedback is delivered what will ultimately determine it's impact? Absent-minded or generic praise isn't going to have the same effect as more thoughtful, genuine observations. But in the same way offhanded critical comments, or even a flicker of perceived disapproval may inadvertently wound a child (or more often a teen!), even the most casual praise may have some reassuring impact providing that it is not overused.

    Constant, indiscriminate feedback, wether critical or positive, is not good. But the quality of the "presence" matters too... "presence" alone isn't enough... haven't we all seen the damage caused by very present, but controlling, critical parenting and teaching? Those behaviors so often make kids timid and I find that tragic.

    I try to deliver feedback in a way that encourages kids to self-reflect and self-evaluate so that they begin to recognize and derive intrinsic motivation from their successes. I also try to draw their attention to the way their behavior impacts other people. Sometimes I slip and let slide a lazy "good job", or "knock it off". But I definitely. consciously use language to en"courage" and inspire kids to be brave, take risks, explore and try new things...

    Somehow, I bet you do too, even if your language is not quite the same. Otherwise your daughter would have stopped calling for Dad to "look at me!" by now!

    Sometimes the language of praise is unspoken... it's in the way our eyes light up when we look at them, in our readiness to engage, in the flash of our smiles... and it doesn't take long before kids that don't receive that stop looking for it.

    Loved your post. Thanks for making me think on this sunny Saturday!!!

  5. When I praise kids I always try to be specific and stay away from the "cheerleader" type praise.
    Barbara Coloroso says to "praise less and thank more" for students partiiparing in positive an worthwhile tasks.
    Once again... Thank for getting me thinking, Joe.

  6. When we praise we turn kids into ' objects'
    when we help them reflect and talk about their interavtions we help them to become ' subjects '

  7. As my children get older, I recognize that presence is very important. It seems that my children share more questions, insights, and concerns when we are together, not necessarily doing anything at all. Simply being there, in my family, is allowing my children to have the time to talk about what they need to talk about, without feeling pressured or limited by time. Thank you for your blog. I like it a lot.

  8. " One common praise pitfall is the use of manipulation packaged as praise, as when teachers say, “I really like the way groups 1 and 4 are sitting” when what they really mean is “I’m infuriated by the way groups 2 and 3 are stirring.” "

    Maybe it's just because the teachers at my school usually say this when they're trying to get the groups they don't praise to know what's being expected of them, but when a teacher praises a certain kid/group it's pretty obvious they mean that another kid/group is doing something wrong.


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