Countless research in the past 30 years shows overwhelming evidence that praising youth can harm their development. For example, in 1998, Mueller & Dweck wrote that praising intelligence can undermine their motivation and performance. While it may seem counter-intuitive and even downright unfriendly, the research is clear. Praise leads to unhealthy attitudes and behaviors in youth.
When we praise young people, it gives them the message that we -- adults -- are the judge of what comprises a good job. It does not allow youth to explore whether they think what they did was good and why. Praise takes the center of focus and control from youth and puts it back in the hands of adults.
The effects are surprisingly negative for youth: shorter task persistence, more eye checking with the teacher, a focus on maintaining their own image, a shut down in challenges, less self-motivation, and highly competitive behavior.
To combat our tendency to praise we need to discover the power of encouragement -- something distinctly different. Encouragement is more specific than praise. It focuses on the youth's efforts, plans and feelings. It gives youth the power to judge, to reflect, to value - not the adult. Again research tells us that youth who hear encouragement are more interested in learning than getting a good score or grade, can see challenges as opportunities to learn, and have better achievement in school. Say what? How have we ignored three decades of research on something so youth development-like? Good question.
In my teaching at the University of Minnesota, two ideas have raised the most reaction and controversy. One is the reality that poor-quality youth programs can do harm to young people, the other is the idea that praising youth can also cause harm. I think when we react strongly to things it is always time to reflect. Trust me -- this topic has provoked such strong reactions in my workshops that people have been ready to throw me down on the mat.
I encourage youth workers, parents, teachers and mentors, to explore our own reactions to the dangers of praise. If you want to look into it more, order Po Bronson's book Nuture Shock, read Alfie Kohn's article "Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job" or join a training session on praise vs. encouragement at the Youth Work Institute Annual Quality Conference. But be prepared to give up some commonly held wisdom and be prepared to duke it out.
Have you noticed the negative effects of praise? Do you have ideas for changing the way you verbally support youth learning? If you do, please share your ideas with all of us praise junkies who need the help.