Don’t Reward Or Praise Children

It’s easy to believe that punishing children has many downsides. But what if I said rewarding and praising children is bad as well?

Like a yummy slice of chocolate cake, rewarding and praising children seems great at the time, but you’ll only see the consequences in the long run.

Passion gets stifled

Rewarding children trains them to focus solely on the reward. Even if they used to love an activity, they’ll come to view the activity as an unwanted obstacle for them to overcome in order to get their reward.

Along the way, their creativity and passion will die out. Rather than taking positive risks, children will do the bare minimum to achieve their prize. Why go for 90 marks in an exam, when the Nintendo is already awarded at 80 marks?

And when a child fails to meet the standards required for the reward, he’s already feeling upset that he didn’t perform well. On top of that, he’ll feel even unhappier, as though he’s being punished, when he’s denied the rewards and praise that’s he’s become so used to receiving.

Harmful in the long run

Stars now, storm clouds later?

Relationships get hurt

Oddly enough, saying things like “I know you can do it!” isn’t as encouraging to a child as you may think. By focusing on a child’s potential, you’re saying  “You’re not good enough now, but work a little harder and I may love you more.” It’s clearly spelled out that the child is expected to do better next time, and the child won’t appreciate this.

Even a simple phrase like “Good boy!” can be damaging, as it puts the adult in a judgmental position. You’re telling the child that you are above him, better than him, and you will always ALWAYS be watching and evaluating not only what he’s doing, but how he’s doing as well. That causes a lot of pressure for the child, and creates a barrier between adult and child.

Nobody likes being manipulated

Children also see reward and praise as a way of manipulating them. Don’t think that just because they’re young, they don’t know what’s going on! And in addition to feeling controlled, they will also feel that their emotional well-being is being ignored.

For example, when a child refuses to get in a car, an adult may bribe him with a reward of ice-cream. While it may ultimately get the child in the car, it doesn’t address the underlying issue of why the child didn’t want to do it in the first place. Is he afraid of cars? Is something else upsetting him, like tiredness or hunger?

So if you don’t reward and praise children, what do you do? Is punishment the answer? Not if you’ve read Why Punishing Your Child Is Bad And What To Do Instead.

Can you think of any better ways of offering acknowledgment and positive feedback to children? Share your thoughts below, in the comments section.

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15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Chun on 24 September, 2009 at 11:41 pm

    its very interesting how you have put across that children should not be praised or rewarded…
    i am an early childhood educator but i am based in australia, if the child does not get any acknowledgement of the success he/she has shown, how is he/she going to know that, what he/she has done is being recognised.
    i can understand that overly praised or overly rewardings is not acceptable but then there is certainly a need for the child to feel that whatever that he/she is doing or have been experiencing is a good thing… and you want them to keep building on that special thing that they have been building. on
    there needs to be a balance of praising and rewarding and also what is meant to be acceptable of disciplining your should not need to include treats and things that might look attrative to the young child…


    • Hi Chun, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Notice that you’ve used the word acknowledgment, which is different from praise. It’s very easy when rewarding/praising to come across as being manipulative, i.e. expectation for the child to perform again.

      The conundrum is this; Positive reinforcement works best when we’re not actually trying to actively reinforce any behaviour.

      If we’re actively trying to change a child’s behaviour, then our acts of acknowledgment will cross the line into being manipulative, and in the long run damage the child’s emotional well-being and relationships.

      I hope that wasn’t too garbled.


  2. By the way, how’s the Early Childhood Education environment doing in Australia?


  3. Hey Mark, I agree with you.
    Your article is very informative. Nowadays it is not easy to educate your children for this reason you have to follow an effective method so that they obey you and see you as a friend.



  4. Hi James,

    Thanks for the input!

    It would be good to have more adults follow the approach of trying to be a child’s friend, as opposed to “I’m the boss. Do as I command!” 🙂


  5. Hi Mark,

    I am very big on using encouragement vs praise. Have you seen the this article – How Not to Talk to Your Kids –
    The inverse power of praise.
    It mentions studies that show the effects that you discussed in your post.


  6. Hi Nicole!

    Thanks for sharing!

    It’s a really long article (with an overextended intro 🙂 ), but I think the main gist of it is:
    If praise isn’t done correctly, not only does passion get stifled, but children will underperform as well.


  7. Hi Mark,
    Your blog is very informative!!

    This topic is good, and I did those rewarding and praising to my child too 😦 oh dear…


  8. Hi “Smelly Butt’s Ama” 🙂

    Thanks for the support!

    Don’t worry about things too much! QQ seems happy, and that’s what counts.


  9. ^_^ feel better 😛


  10. Haha, that’s good then! 🙂


  11. If this topic is of interest to you, you can read “Punished by Rewards” from Alfie Kohn, a very detailed scholarly essay on the negative effects of praises and rewards. As he explains, “Good job” is actually a very cynical declaration that really means “I didn’t think you could do it, so I am surprised you did”.

    Praises can also have a disastrous effect when they do not match a child’s self esteem and self evaluation. It can “block” a child from ever taking that risk again, because he may not perform as well the second time.

    Note that this does not mean that parents should not be happy of a child’s behavior. There are ways to communicate positive feedback without getting into praise and rewards: use description instead of judgment; let the kid evaluate his own work (“Mom, what do you think of my drawing?” — “Well, what do YOU think of it, dear?”) etc.

    Finally, one more detail: you mention that “Positive reinforcement works best when we’re not actually trying to actively reinforce any behaviour”. It’s a bit of a weird sentence because the term “reinforcement”, which comes from the behavioral psychology, implies an actual intent into shaping one’s behavior through behavior modification techniques. I’d rather say that positive reinforcement is less damaging when the intent is not manipulative, but it still works at the behavioral level and not at the cognitive level. Behavior is the top of the iceberg, the end-result of a long chain of emotional needs and psychological mechanisms. It’s much more powerful for a parent to work on a child from the inside out, from the root need and emotions all the way out to the ending behavior, rather than the contrary. And this requires different techniques: active listening, “I” messages, communication skills, life-story narratives and attachment parenting.

    It’s a fascinating topic by the way.


    • I did say I hoped the message wasn’t too garbled 🙂 Thanks for clarifying!

      You could post a link for Alfie’s work if it’s available.

      I’ve since come to learn that even appropriate praise is difficult. In a childcare setting, there’s many children all deserving of attention. It’s a bit robotic to try and shoot off praises to each and every one of them, all at an equal level and at the same time! 🙂


  12. Posted by Tam on 24 June, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    yet everyone PRAISES the author of an article..Shouldn’t we be all saying “oh, yes, you wrote an article”??? It is hypocritical. Kids need judgements and praises from their parents in reasonable amounts. Not praising will also bring low self-esteem kids who might think that they are never good enough for their parents


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