When the phone dropped, I was walking next to Amber, who I've taken it upon myself to teach and model some rather desperately needed social skills. Once the phone hit the ground, I subtly turned to Amber to see if she noticed. She casually walked towards the phone, picked it up and handed to the lady.
The lady smiled back and said thank you.
Amber replied with you're welcome.
I then had to make a decision - I really wanted to say something to help Amber recognize the virtue of her kindness. I wanted to encourage Amber to see how her act of good-will benefited not herself but the elderly lady.
You see, that's the rub.
If I praise Amber by saying "good job", it's the equivalent of patting her on the head and throwing a mirror inches in front of her face - like the praise, the mirror would encourage Amber to focus on how her good-will benefited her. After all, praise from an authority figure such as a teacher is something that can feel awfully nice to receive, but I'll be honest with you, Amber is as narcissistic as she needs to be. She certainly does not require anything, such as praise, that would encourage her to think of herself anymore than she already does.
So instead of dropping the "good job" like the verbal tick it has become, I said, "did you see the smile on that ladies face?"
Amber looked at me with an ear-to-ear grin and said, "yeah, I did."
And that was all I needed to say.
The trick here is that rather than simply lathering on the praise, I invited Amber to reflect on how her actions made someone else feel. You'll notice that I did not ask Amber how picking up the cell phone made her feel - rather I asked how this act of kindness made the lady feel. This is important because I believe our motivations matter - in other words, it's not enough that Amber was kind. I want her to be kind for the right reasons. I want her to be kind because of how it will affect others and not because being kind will land her in the teacher's good books.
The point here is teach a kind of character education that encourages Amber to serve others because it will help others and not simply as a means to an end to benefit her own status.
Here is an invaluable chart that Alfie Kohn offers from his book Unconditional Parenting:
If the idea of removing praise from your interactions with children bothers you, I invite you to think about two things.
Firstly cognitive dissonance, an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously, is never convenient.
Secondly, when asked to rethink some of your most cherished pedagogical practices, consider what Mark Twain was on to when he said:
It ain't what we don't know that get's us in trouble. It's what we know for sure that just ain't so.
For a deeper understanding of the pitfalls of praise: