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Rethinking Praise: Why "I Am Proud of You" May Not Be the Best Way to Encourage Your Kids

Rethinking Praise: Why "I Am Proud of You" May Not Be the Best Way to Encourage Your Kids

Jul 11th 2023

As parents, we often express our love and admiration for our children by saying "I am proud of you." While this phrase is rooted in good intentions, some educational philosophies and psychological findings suggest that it might not be the best approach to building a child's self-esteem and sense of self-worth. Montessori education, in particular, offers alternative ways of praising children that are more conducive to their development. In this article, we will explore the history behind this phrase, its psychological effects, and practical alternatives to using "I am proud of you."

The History of "I Am Proud of You"

The phrase "I am proud of you" has its roots in the way our society has historically framed success and achievements. It often reflects a parent's desire to see their child excel in life, as well as a deep sense of personal satisfaction in witnessing their child's accomplishments. However, the focus on external validation and societal expectations can lead to potential problems in a child's emotional and psychological development. In this article, we will explore the findings from various researchers, including Carol Dweck, Edward L. Deci, Richard M. Ryan, Alfie Kohn, Jennifer Henderlong Corpus, Mark R. Lepper, and Mary Budd Rowe, to understand why we should reconsider our use of praise and how we can better support our children's growth and development.

Psychological Findings

Studies have shown that children who receive praise for their achievements, rather than their effort, can develop a fixed mindset. This means that they may view their abilities as innate and unchangeable, leading to a fear of failure and reluctance to take on new challenges. Furthermore, research has indicated that praise like "I am proud of you" can foster a sense of dependence on external validation potentially hindering a child's ability to develop intrinsic motivation and a healthy sense of self-worth. Carol Dweck's , one of the world’s experts in the study of motivation has spent the last forty years looking at why and how people achieve their potential—or don’ t and her research had a huge impact on this subject She also suggested that praising their effort and perseverance can promote a growth mindset, encouraging them to embrace challenges and strive for improvement.

Stanford University study on praise

Another study by Deci and Ryan's self-determination theory highlights the importance of intrinsic motivation in personal growth and well-being. They found that when children are praised for external rewards or outcomes, their intrinsic motivation may suffer, leading to decreased interest in the activity and a diminished sense of autonomy.

Alfie Kohn, in his book "Punished by Rewards," argues that praise can be detrimental to children's motivation. He contends that it conditions them to perform tasks only for external validation, rather than for their own satisfaction and enjoyment. Both rewards and punishments, says Punished by Rewards author Alfie Kohn, are ways of manipulating behavior that destroy the potential for real learning. Instead, he advocates providing an engaging curriculum and a caring atmosphere “so kids can act on their natural desire to find out.”

Punished by Reward

The Montessori Approach

Montessori education offers an alternative approach to praising children that focuses on fostering their intrinsic motivation and building their self-esteem. Instead of relying on phrases like "I am proud of you," Montessori educators encourage parents to observe their child's accomplishments and express specific, genuine appreciation for the effort they put into their work. This approach helps children develop a growth mindset, where they see their abilities as malleable and believe that they can improve through hard work and perseverance.

Different Types of Praise and Their Effects

Corpus and Lepper's research on praise reveals that not all praise is created equal. Process-focused praise, which emphasizes effort and strategy, promotes more adaptive outcomes, such as intrinsic motivation and a mastery orientation. In contrast, person-focused praise, which focuses on a child's inherent qualities, can have less desirable effects on motivation and mindset.

Columbia School research

The Importance of Reflection and Autonomy

Mary Budd Rowe's research on wait time demonstrates the benefits of giving children time to think and process before responding. By providing ample wait time, we can increase engagement, promote more thoughtful responses, and foster a greater sense of autonomy in our children. This approach aligns with the Montessori philosophy of allowing children to reflect on their experiences and develop ownership over their achievements.

Wait Time: Slowing Down May Be A Way of Speeding Up!

Finally, let's not forget about Andrew Huberman, Ph.D, a renowned neuroscientist and professor at Stanford School of Medicine. He has conducted extensive research on brain development, function, and neural plasticity. In a podcast episode, he discusses the importance of maintaining a healthy baseline level of dopamine in children to keep them motivated in various contexts and prevent a fear of failure. Huberman explains a classic experiment where children's dopamine levels peaked when they were rewarded with gold stars for drawing in their free time, but their desire to draw decreased below initial levels when the rewards were removed (This experiment is found on 1:24:15 of the video). To avoid a similar effect in adults, he recommends being cautious about introducing too many dopamine-stimulating behaviors or compounds around activities that are already enjoyed. 

Optimize & Leverage Dopamine

Practical Advice: What to Say Instead

Here are some practical alternatives to saying "I am proud of you" that align with the Montessori philosophy and support your child's development:

  1. Be specific: Instead of generic praise, try to focus on the specific actions or behaviors that you appreciate in your child. For example, you could say, "I noticed how you persevered through that challenging puzzle. Great job!"
  2. Encourage effort: Praise your child for the effort they put into their work, rather than the outcome. This can help them develop a growth mindset and a love for learning. For example, "I can see how much effort you put into practicing your piano piece. Keep up the good work!"
  3. Focus on progress: Highlight the progress your child has made in a particular area, rather than comparing them to others. This will help them develop a sense of self-worth that is not dependent on external validation. For example, "You've improved so much in your reading since last month. I'm impressed by your dedication!"
  4. Ask open-ended questions: Engage your child in a conversation about their experiences and feelings. This will help them reflect on their accomplishments and develop a sense of ownership over their achievements. For example, "What was the most challenging part of that project for you? How did you overcome it?"

While "I am proud of you" may seem like a harmless phrase, it is essential to be mindful of the impact it can have on a child's psychological development. By adopting a Montessori-inspired approach and using more specific, effort-focused praise, we can better support our children.