In Praise of Praise: On the Right Use of Influence

“My parents want me to defeat Einstein.” “My parents want me to be more educated than they are.” “My parents want me to make them proud.” “My parents want me to have the best score on the National Exam.” “My parents want me to be an important person.” These are some of the responses to my curiosity about what my Indonesian 6th-grade students think their parents want for them. Because I teach English, lots of good discussion topics come up. When I next asked these students what they wanted for themselves, they were in strong agreement with what their parents wanted for them. “How do your parents try to help you?” I asked. From their written responses, the top ways were gifts for good scores, telling stories about when they were kids, telling them to study hard, and hurtful teasing.

When I asked what things helped the most, the top vote getter was “praying for me” followed by “support” and “telling me things like ‘never give up’.” What interested me most was that none of them named praise as something their parents did. I checked with several of the Indonesian teachers and learned that praise is not common in Indonesian culture. Or, as one Indonesian teacher put it, “Sometimes we do get praised, but it is not real, so we learn not to trust it.” In our little school and in my classroom, by contrast, praise is encouraged. I asked the children whether they liked being praised. As most of them nodded shyly, Bagus said, “It’s not good for me, Bu, because then I will be better than everyone else.” “Oh, you’re worried that if you get praised, you’ll get too proud?” “Yes.” What followed was a good discussion about praise. Bagus concluded that he could check and see whether it really did make him think he was “better than everyone else.”

Another aspect of these children’s responses interested me: none of them said that gifts or special vacations were helpful in motivating them to study and learn. This corresponds with research by Professors Ryan and Deci (1985, 2002) in which they conclude: “A reward that acknowledges a great effort is more effective than one that is promised upfront for getting an A. Appreciation is always a better motivator than control.” They point out that rewards for good grades will motivate children to link learning with an extrinsic reward rather than the intrinsic reward of learning itself. Prof. Ryan, in an interview (Singapore Sunday Times, April 1, 2012; see with Sandra Davie, says, “Encouraging a child to do his or her best is enough. Conveying that you will love your child just as much no matter what the outcome is not only supportive, but it may also reduce anxiety, which itself can compromise performance. There is no evidence that pressure helps students do better.”

Going deeper in exploring the use of praise, I find that it is both an attitude and a skill.

Using praise as an attitude, or way of interacting with others, helps parents and teachers focus on noticing what attributes a child is ready to learn and then pointing out when they are using this attribute. For example, I notice that Gabriel is ready to learn more about managing his own behavior. When he spontaneously asks if he can move to another table so he won’t be distracted, I say, “Great, Gabriel, you’re practicing managing your own behavior.” Dion is ready to be more confident with English. When he speaks up, I say, “Dion, you’re practicing being more confident! I heard you really well.” Shila is ready to be less worried about making mistakes. When she makes a mistake and then corrects it, I can encourage her by saying, “So you noticed your own mistake. You can make a mistake and fix it. That’s a great way to learn.”

Other examples of healthy attributes come from The Family Virtues Guide by Linda Kavelin Popov. (By the way, Linda is an excellent teacher, whose work is the most grounded and practical parenting guide I have found.) She refers to praise as “acknowledgement” and names 52 universal virtues useful for being a good person living a good life. Among them are caring, consideration, helpfulness, generosity, kindness, humility, tolerance, respect, self-discipline, trust, tact, and modesty. Looking at this selection, you can see that they are developmentally diverse. A 6 year old might be ready to practice kindness and a 6th grader tact. In working with praise (or acknowledgements), I’ve become more interested in developing children’s character and less frustrated by their undesirable behaviors. Recently, coaching a friend in parenting her difficult 5 year old, I gave her lots of information and many strategies, but the one that worked the best and brought immediate results was praise. “I told him I didn’t want to fight anymore and that I was going to look for things to praise him for. At night, I told him three things I appreciated that he done that day. I couldn’t believe the look on his face! And the next morning he went to school without a fuss.”

Here are a few guidelines for refining the skill of using praise.

  • Be alert not to overuse praise with the result that it loses value.
  • Use praise only when you really mean it. Your praise must remain trustworthy.
  • Give praise right away. Praise offered immediately has greater impact.
  • Be as specific and accurate as you can.
  • Don’t use the word “should” when you are praising. As Linda Kavelin Popov (p. 18) puts it, if you say, “‘You should share and be generous’ [ instead of ‘be generous’], there is a shaming quality to it, and it usually results in a child reacting with tears or anger.”
  • “Name the act, not the actor.” This is more wise guidance from Linda (pp. 24-25). She clarifies the difference between inappropriate and appropriate virtues acknowledgements. “‘That was a kind thing to do’ is a far kinder way to acknowledge a child than to say, ‘You are so kind,’ which labels him and gives him a queasy feeling about accepting unjust or exaggerated praise. ‘You forgot to be kind’ is a kinder way to correct an unkind act than to label the child with a phrase such as ‘How could you be so mean?'”

Parents and teachers have the joy and challenge of helping children become the best people and leaders they can be. Prof. Ryan says it well. “Success in life is . . . related to feeling a sense of confidence and security that comes from parents who support their child through successes and set-backs. Parents motivate their children best by conveying and modeling the right values, and showing care, concern and helpfulness when they encounter obstacles and difficulties.” (Sandra Davie, op. cit.)

When considering power as “the ability to have an effect, or to have influence,” the emphasis is usually on the first half of the definition. Praise, on the other hand, emphasizes the wise use of the influence aspect of power. Although this article focuses on the right uses of praise for children, it is humanizing, encouraging, and effective with adults as well. When people feel emotionally connected, competent, and autonomous, they flourish. Acknowledging people for valued behavior rather than primarily for outcomes is the right use of the power as influence.


  1. Deci, E. L., Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior.  New York, NY: Plenum Press.
  2. Deci, E. L., Ryan, R. M. (2002). Handbook of Self-Determination Research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.
  3. Popov, L. K. (1997). The Family Virtues Guide: Simple Ways to Bring Out the Best in Our Children and Ourselves. New York, NY: Plume.

Related articles:
Children in the Balance: Should You Rethink Your Parenting Style?
Don’t Underestimate Me: Ethical Use of Power for and With Children
Help Others Reduce Stress and Increase Self-Esteem

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • June

    May 9th, 2012 at 1:12 PM

    Personally I see nothing wrong with praising your child when there is praise to be warranted. I think that it builds a child’s self esteem and lets them know that you are proud of them. But I do see some parents who over praise the kids- acting like eaxvh individual drawing that they do is comparable to Picasso, or that in everything they do they do it excellent. What is that really teaching the child about how they will be graded in school or the expectations that the academic world will have? If you tell them all of the time how good they are then they can never really learn to gracefully accept a little failure and learn from it. I don’t want my child’s ego to be shot down, instead I want to help to boost that up. And I know that the best way to do this is to tell them when they do both a good job and a bad, and hopefully they can learn from it all and do better on the next attempt.

  • Blair

    May 9th, 2012 at 3:54 PM

    Such an informative piece, one that I think many parents can appreciate. Thanks for sharing this.

  • TabbY

    May 10th, 2012 at 4:16 AM

    Well, praise is certainly better than the alternative!
    Would we rather have to think that kids are receiving no reassurance and criticism?
    If I ever have kids, I want to lavish them with love and praise all the time.
    That’s kind of what parents are supposed to do.

  • dean

    May 10th, 2012 at 3:35 PM

    I want my child to be a success, and I think that a large part of him doing that is by me standing behind him and encouraging him all the way. If that means praising him, then so be it. I think that each child responds to things in certain ways, and some need a little more than others. If you know that this is what he or she needs, then give it to them. Why wouldn’t you?

  • Chen

    May 12th, 2012 at 12:22 AM

    I grew up in Asia and yes praise is something that is not encountered a lot when it comes to kids and their parents.i think its a culture thing but its just not there.What you have described nearly sums up everything I went through in my early years.

    Even in school the procedures followed are different from those in America.

    And coming to stress-yes,it may not always be a good thing but we do also know that some people work better under stress.So maybe a little bit of stress along with constant support is what is extreme is good,as we all know.

  • FreakNGeeK

    May 12th, 2012 at 4:27 AM

    There are so many different schools of thought on this subject that I think most parents walk around pretty confused about what approach they should take with their children
    Too much praise can harm them because they go thru life always expecting to hear how great they are.
    Too little praise and they never are given the chance to really know how good they are.
    When did it have to become so hard just to naturally and sincerely love your child and give him the praise that feels right, and that you can plainly see that he thives from?

  • Donna Meade

    May 12th, 2012 at 7:08 AM

    I love it that there are kids who only wish for their parents to pray for them. That’s awesome.

  • Cedar Barstow

    May 15th, 2012 at 7:06 PM

    Hello All, I’m pleased that this article has gotten so much response. All of you add good points. Like other themes in the realms of right use of power, misuses of the power and influence of praise happen most often at the extremes of the continuum between over-use and under-use. Too much praise or inauthentic praise can result in arrogance or distrust in others and too little praise undermines self-confidence and life satisfaction. It is definitely an art and a skill to stay in “the zone” of right use of praise. Cedar (author of article)

  • Robyn Knowlan

    July 4th, 2012 at 9:29 AM

    Cedar, you are an amazing teacher! Wish I had had you in my 6th grade classroom. This article lines up perfectly with my favorite coaching book, “Positive Coaching”. I have a sneaking suspicion that you secretly wrote that ;)

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