The Problem with Praise

James shared his toy with his friend. His mother said, "Good job, James, you shared." The mother was trying to be a good parent. She was trying teaching her son to share.

But she wasn't teaching her son to share. Praise doesn't accomplish that. Worse, her praise was probably disrupting the natural learning process of the benefits of sharing.

Behaviorism and Praise

Behaviorism assumes that your child is like a machine that emits behaviors that have been rewarded. If you are trying to be a good behavioristic parent, you first decide what behaviors you want your child to "emit". Then you reward your child when your child performs these behaviors. These rewards "shape" your child's behavior. This is a simple, easy, and plausible method of teaching children. Except for not working, it's ideal.

Actually, a child uses the past to predict the future; your child tries to select the behavior most likely to be rewarding. So the behaviorist theory gets the order of things wrong, but it makes roughly the right prediction: Your child will tend to perform behaviors that have been rewarded in the past.

For example, suppose that every time your child tells you a story about what he or she did, you criticize or point out things your child could have done differently. Your child will stop telling you stories. That is behaviorism in action -- rewards and punishments influence behavior.

So praise will cause a child to perform the behavior again, assuming the child likes praise. I suspect that girls like praise more than boys, making them easier to control. So let's give this story a happy ending. You as parent praise your child for sharing, and as a result your child begins sharing more.

Problem I: When You Aren't There

If your praise is the only reward for sharing, your child will learn to share when you are there to give praise and learn not share when you are not present (or not paying attention). According to the behaviorists, this learning occurs slowly; in reality, your child can figure out pretty quickly that she/he won't get any praise when you aren't there.

From a behavioristic perspective, you have half-succeeded – your child is emitting the desired behavior some of the time, but not all of the time. From a human perspective, you have created a monster – someone who shares when his/her parent is present but is selfish when his/her parent is around. From a human perspective, the selfish child is the real child. And the human perspective is right. As discussed elsewhere, behaviorism focuses on behaviors, but what we care about is underlying traits and abilities, like being generous. If your child was generous, he/she would share even when you weren't around.

Is Sharing Naturally Rewarding?

The behaviorist hopes that in addition to your praise, there is some natural reward for sharing. Then, when your child starts emitting the sharing behavior, your child experiences this natural reward. That will cause your child to share even when you are not around.

This hope is reasonable. As discussed elsewhere, humans are built to be social, be empathic, and cooperate. Sharing is also a good strategy.

BUT. If there is a natural reward for sharing, why do you as parent have to add additional reward in the form of praise? We don't have to praise our children to get them to eat ice cream.

This natural reward does not work as quickly and effectively as parents would want. So they add the artificial reward to speed up the process. The behavioristic rationale for this is that the artificial reward strengthens the behavior until the natural reward can take over.

This rationale assumes that the artificial reward does not interfere with the natural reward.

Praise as a Disruption of the Learning Experience

The problem is, your praise does disrupt the natural learning process. First, you draw your child's attention away from the experience of sharing. So the sharing is much less likely to produce any natural reward. Second, if there is a natural reward, you are drawing your child's attention away from that.

Finally, if there is still any natural happiness produced by the sharing, your child is likely to think that happiness is caused by your praise.

So when your child shares, it is a critical moment. You want your child to feel and understand the consequences of that sharing. Don't interrupt that moment. And your praise is about as disruptive as you can be.

This advice generalizes to anything your child does. If there is no natural reward for your child's actions, then you will never be able to do better than teach your child to behave that way when you are around. If there is a natural reward, the last thing you want to do is praise the behavior. (At least at that moment. If your child deserves praise, then you should probably give it. But wait a while.)

Disrupting your Relationship with Your Child

Your artificial attempts to control your child can also disrupt your relationship with your child. Your child wants a parent, not a pellet-dispenser. (The pellet-dispenser gives the food reward to the rat in an experiment.) Your child could actually come to dislike praise.

Am I serious?

Yes. I do not praise my daughers for sharing. I do occasionally try to point out the natural rewards for sharing. I also constantly point out the natural rewards for not fighting, and they don't seem to learn that.

My daughters do very well at school. They does not receive any monetary rewards for that. Yes, my wife and I congratulate them on her good grades. That counts as praise and reward. We also try to make it very clear that we would be happy with them if they didn't get as good of grades. The fact is, they like getting good grades.