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What Happened When I Stopped Praising My Child

Some things are guaranteed to trigger my parental auto pilot: teetering first steps, messy scribbles presented with pride, the toddler singing to the baby (rather than catapulting him from his bouncy chair). Suddenly I hear myself uttering phrases many of us are very familiar with.

“Well done!”

“Aren’t you clever?”

“Good girl!”

And what’s wrong with that? Surely our kids benefit from having their accomplishments and good behavior praised?

Apparently not. According to a growing number of experts, our well-meant words may not have the positive effects we intend.

So what’s wrong with praising our kids?

First let’s clarify – we’re talking about evaluative praise: statements that pass judgement, such as “Good job!” or “You’re so smart!” Here are a few reasons why many parenting educators and psychologists suggest avoiding evaluative praise:

1 | It reduces motivation and enjoyment

Evaluative praise often focuses on end results, rather than the effort or skill involved. This type of praise can be motivational but as human behavior and education expert, Alfie Kohn, explains in “Unconditional Parenting” there’s a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation:

“Intrinsic motivation basically means you like what you’re doing for its own sake, whereas extrinsic motivation means you do something as a means to an end – in order to get a reward or avoid a punishment.”

Kohn argues that extrinsic motivation erodes intrinsic: kids’ interest and enjoyment in the activity diminishes as they become seduced by the reward or praise.

2 | It lacks meaning

Evaluative praise often doesn’t mean much, especially if used frequently and with little reason. Think about the difference in the following:

“Thank you for being patient while I did the shopping.”

“Good girl, let’s go.”

What do we want to achieve when we offer praise? Are there more effective ways to convey pride, to motivate, or give thanks?

3 | Its effect on behavior is limited

So, let’s assume “good” behavior is our aim. Psychologist, author, and founder of Aha Parenting, Dr. Laura Markham, warns in “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids” that “praise works only while you’re there to dispense it. For instance, children who are praised for sharing begin to share less unless adults are watching.”

4 | “Clever girls and boys” are less likely to tackle challenges

Research by psychologist Carol Dweck concluded that praising intelligence (i.e. “You’re good at math”) promotes a “fixed mindset”: children believe their intellect and talent are fixed, so are less likely to persevere with challenging tasks. By contrast, children with a “growth mindset” trust that applying effort will help them to overcome difficulties.

However, Kohn advises against praise of any kind, cautioning that all praise teaches children that “attention, acknowledgment, and approval must be earned.

So what’s the alternative?

How to encourage without using evaluative praise

Descriptive praise involves observing and commenting on kids’ actions and strategies. We can describe what we see, and how it impacts others, without imposing any judgement. Arguably it isn’t actually praise at all.

Michelle McHale, Director of Attachment Parenting UK, prefers the term “observational encouragement,” while Dr. Markham talks about “unconditional positive regard,” which she describes as: “Noticing your child and affirming him, his activities, his self, and your love for him – rather than evaluating him with conditional praise.” 

As Melissa Hood, Director of London-based The Parent Practice, writes in “Real Parenting: “We want our children to take responsibility for their own behavior and evaluate what they do for themselves, rather than rely on what other people think.”

This all resonates with me. Rather than teaching our kids to seek external approval isn’t it better to support them as they learn, grow, and gain confidence in their abilities?

Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish, in “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids Will Talk,” speak of the adult “describing with appreciation” what they see, enabling the child to then praise themselves. The role of facilitator appeals to me; helping our children to recognize and take pride in their own achievements.

I thought about when and how we would usually offer praise, and found alternatives. I made a list and stuck it on our refrigerator:

Just be there : Give attention, not praise

Describe :“You did it! You drew a picture with green and blue crayon.”

Explain the impact : “You gave Charlie his toy; that made him happy.” Or, “Your friends really enjoyed playing here today because you shared your toys.”

Discuss : “You filled another page in your sticker book – how did you decide where to put them all?” Or, “You went to the bathroom on your own; did that make you feel proud?”

As a side note, our daughter is a toddler. Clearly these phrases would need to be adjusted for an older child.

Parenting without praise

As we began this shift in approach, I felt some initial resistance. I wanted my daughter to feel appreciated and the impulse to simply say, “That’s great!’ remained strong. But I remembered McHale’s words from the APUK Positive Discipline Course:

“Encouragement can sometimes be wordless. Children will sense our pleasure or appreciation and more than anything they will appreciate our attention and interest without having their actions and behavior specifically recognized.”

As I sat with my daughter, I wondered: does it make us feel good too, to praise our children? Parents of young kids spend a lot of time saying ‘no’ and redirecting; it’s a relief to say something purely positive.

Does praising our kids also validate our parenting somehow? I certainly have days when I question the job I’m doing. Could saying, “Good sharing!” when it’s all going well be a bit of a self-administered pat on the back?

A few days into our new approach, I noticed some changes:

1 | I pay more attention

Evaluative praise is a quick, easy response, especially while juggling laundry and dinner prep. Descriptive praise requires more thought and effort, but my daughter is clearly boosted by my interest which, in turn, seems to extend her interest in the task at hand. 

2 | We talk more

Had I not asked what the scribbles were in my daughter’s latest artwork I wouldn’t have known that it was Grandma in a rocket ship, with a sandwich in case she got hungry. I enjoy conversations like that.

3 | Positive behavior

Yesterday my daughter said, “Watch me be kind,” as she gave her baby brother a toy. I would far rather hear that than, “Watch me be a good girl.” I replied with a simple observational comment, and she toddled off looking very pleased with herself.

Obviously we’re in early stages here and it’ll be interesting, in later years, to see how this approach works as our kids face higher stakes challenges. But I can see already that our daughter appreciates this kind of encouragement.

I’m pleased that we’ve switched off autopilot and are attempting to interact with our kids in a more mindful way. I plan to keep working at this, to keep noticing and discussing, and above all to heap attention on our children, not praise.  

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Rachel McAdams didn't talk publicly about her pregnancy or her birth story. There are some things this working mama wants to keep to herself, but the fact that she needs to pump at work isn't one of them.

McAdams was recently doing a photo shoot with photographer Claire Rothstein of Girls Girls Girls magazine when she needed to take a pump break. Wearing Versace and a neck full of diamonds McAdmans did what mamas all over the world do every day, and Rothstein snapped a pic that is now going viral.

In an Instagram post, Rothstein explains that she and McAdams had a "mutual appreciation disagreement about who's idea it was to take this picture," but the photographer says she remembers it being McAdams' idea, "which makes me love her even more."

In her caption of the amazing photograph, Rothstein writes: "Breastfeeding is the most normal thing in the world and I can't for the life of me imagine why or how it is ever frowned upon or scared of."

The photographer added that she wanted to put the image out there to change perceptions about breastfeeding, pumping, and working motherhood.

McAdams decision to normalize pumping through this glamorous image is especially cool when you consider that she's not really a social media person, and spends a lot of days in much less glam attire.

She recently arrived for her first interview since welcoming her son in the spring wearing a grey shirt, baggy pants and sneakers, reportedly telling the interviewer (Helena de Bertodano for The Sunday Times U.K.), "I don't even know what I'm wearing today. The shoes are held together with glue. Isn't that sad? I need to get a life."

"I have clothes on and that's a good thing," McAdams told Bertodano during that chat. Her attire for that newspaper interview was a world away from the clothes she wore for the Girls Girls Girls shoot.

During her Sunday Times interview McAdams declined to discuss her son's name or birthdate.

"I want to keep his life private, even if mine isn't," she explained. "But I'm having more fun being a mum than I've ever had. Everything about it is interesting and exciting and inspiring to me. Even the tough days — there's something delightful about them."

Most of us will never look the way McAdams does in this photo while we're pumping, but we can totally understand that sometimes, motherhood means you're wearing sweats and sometimes it means you're pumping in your work clothes (even if for most of us, that doesn't mean Versace).

McAdams may be keeping some parts of her motherhood experience private, but by showing the world this part of her day, she's normalizing something that desperately needs normalizing.

Some mamas pump, and the world needs to know (and accommodate) that.

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To my children,

It's the New Year, and I have been doing a lot of thinking. I want to say, with all of my heart and all of my soul, that I am sorry. I want apologize for anything (and everything) I have said or done that made you feel less-than or sad or small.

I regret, so deeply, the hurt I delivered through harsh words or sideways glances, for steely eyes you didn't deserve and sarcastic replies you didn't understand. I'm sorry for being upset when I should have been more understanding, for resorting to frustration when I should have found more patience, for pulling away when I should have drawn near.

There were the times when you needed more from me, when you asked for more, and I simply couldn't provide. There were the moments when you wanted less of me, needed less from me, and I couldn't—or perhaps I just wouldn't—back away.

I start every day with a hope, a hope that I will be better than the day before.

Sometimes I succeed, but many times, I fail. Every so often, I fail in spectacular fashion. I think about all the times when I wasn't gentle enough or kind enough or attentive enough to you, about all the moments when I was too quick to anger and not quick enough to forgive.

You don't need me to tell you that I'm not perfect. Lord knows, you know far too well.

But I will say it to you, because I think it helps to hear me say it: I am not perfect. I make mistakes. I am human. I have flaws and cracks and blemishes; they are a part of me, just as they are a part of you.

Sometimes, my dear ones, my mistakes are small—like forgetting to pack your lunch or mixing up the dates for Tot Shabbat, or picking you up an hour late from a play date or accidentally switching your piano primer with your brother's, or sending a snack I know you dislike because I didn't have time to go grocery shopping and have no other food in the refrigerator. But sometimes, they aren't so minor.

Sometimes, my mistakes have to do with the way I've behaved, and the words I have said, and the way I have said them. For those times, and for all the times I failed to support you the way I should, or help you in the way you deserve, and love you in the best way I can, I am sorry.

I wish I didn't make so many mistakes. I'm a perfectionist at heart, but when it comes to parenting, there's still so much I haven't mastered. Even after almost a decade of doing this day in and day out, I still feel like a novice in so many regards and as green as I did on day one.

Precious ones, I've come to realize, no matter how hard I try, that I just can't get it right all of the time. I hope you can forgive my failings.

The older I get, the more I realize that life is a jumble of hits and misses. As many times as we try and succeed, we also try and fail. As much as we hope to do right, we often end up doing wrong. It is the story of the human condition—this mix of losses and gains, triumphs and defeats. It's all very messy (think sloppy joes and pancakes dripping with syrup kind of messy), and yet, it's all we know.

My darling ones, I want nothing more than to do right by you and be the best mother I can be for you. I want to love you unconditionally, support you unreservedly, and be present unambiguously.

In the New Year, I resolve to do better for you, to be better with you, and to act as if God is watching. You mean the world to me. You are everything to me. I love you, always and forever.

All my love,

Mommy


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People often say that having a second child doesn't much add to the workload of parenting. There's no steep learning curve: You already know how to make a bottle, install a car seat and when to call the pediatrician. And you're already doing laundry, making lunches and supervising bath time—so throwing a second kid in the tub isn't a big deal.

Except that it is. Having a second child doesn't just mean attaching a second seat to your stroller. Adding a whole new person to your family is more complicated than that, and it's okay to say that it is hard.

A new study out of Australia disputes the popular idea that after making the transition from people to parents, making the jump from one child to two is easy. The researchers found that having a second child puts a lot of pressure on parents' time and their mental health, and mothers bear the brunt of the burden.

When looking at heterosexual couples, the researchers found that before a first child is born both partners feel equal amounts of "time pressure," but once the child is born, that pressure grows, more so for mothers than fathers.

Basically, parents feel psychological stress when they feel they don't have enough time to do all they need to. One baby makes both parents feel more stress, but mom's increase is more than dad's. When a second baby comes, that time pressure doubles for both parents, and since mom already had more than dad, there's now a gulf between them.

The researchers behind this study—Leah Ruppanner, Francisco Perales and Janeen Baxter—say that after a first child is born, a mother's mental health improves, but after a second child, it declines.

Writing for The Conversation, the trio explains:

"Second children intensify mothers' feelings of time pressure. We showed that if mothers did not have such intense time pressures following second children, their mental health would actually improve with motherhood. Fathers get a mental health boost with their first child, but also see their mental health decline with the second child. But, unlike mothers, fathers' mental health plateaus over time. Clearly, fathers aren't facing the same chronic time pressure as mothers over the long-term."

The researchers say that even when mothers reduce their work time, the time pressure is still there and that "mothers cannot shoulder the time demands of children alone."

Adding a second child to the family isn't just a matter of throwing a few more socks in the laundry: It means a schedule that is already stretched is now filling up with twice as many appointments, twice as many school functions. Mothers only have 24 hours in the day, and as much as we wish we could add a couple extra hours per child, we can't.

Time simply can't change to help us, but society can. As the researchers noted, when time pressure is removed, motherhood actually improves mental health.

We love our lives, we love our kids, we love parenting, but there is only so much of our day to go around.

Ruppanner, Perales and Baxter suggest that if society were to help mothers out more, our mental health (and therefore our children's wellbeing as well) would improve even after two or three kids. "Collectivising childcare – for example, through school buses, lunch programs and flexible work policies that allow fathers' involvement – may help improve maternal mental health," the researchers explain, adding that "it is in the national interest to reduce stressors so that mothers, children and families can thrive."

Whether you're talking about Australia or America, that last bit is so true, but this research proves that the myth about second-time parenthood isn't. Even if you already have the skills and the hand-me-downs, having a second child isn't as easy as it is sometimes made out to be.

We can love our children and our lives and still admit when things aren't easy.

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We know life gets a little (okay, a lot) busy around this time of year so if you haven't crossed off everyone on your Christmas list just yet, here's your reminder that you've still got time. Fortunately, that Amazon Prime membership of yours comes in handy... especially for the holidays.

Here are some of the best last-minute gifts to get on Amazon. Also, that extra couple of dollars for gift wrapping is *so* worth it if it's available. 😉

1. Tape Activity Book

So your little can create just about anywhere—on the go, in the car or hanging out at home.

Melissa & Doug Tape Activity Book, $6.47

BUY

2. Instant Pot

Mama, meet your new best friend. 4.5 stars with nearly 30K reviews.

Instant Pot 8-qt, $89.95

BUY

3. Silicone Teething Mitt

Offer relief to your teething one with a mitt that stays in place.

Itzy Ritzy Silicone Teething Mitt, $8.99

BUY

4. Roomba

Give the gift of never having to manually vacuum again.

iRobot Roomba 690, $279.00

BUY

5. Magnetic Tiles

These are always a favorite for kids of all ages. Build endless possibilities and work on fine motor skills—win-win!

Magnetic Tiles Building Blocks Set, $31.99

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6. DryBar Triple Sec

Perfect addition to mama's stocking, or paired with a salon or blowout gift card. Adds *so* much texture and volume.

DryBar Triple Sec 3-in-1, $35.99

BUY

7. Plush Animated Bunny

Plays peek-a-boo and sings for baby.

Animated Plush Stuffed Animal, $32.97

BUY

8. 23andMe

Learn everything you want to know about your family history, where you came from, and even information about your genetics.

23andMe DNA Test, $67.99

BUY

9. Boon Bath Pipes

Make bath time more fun. They suction to the wall and can be played with individually or altogether in a chain.

Boon Building Bath Pipes, $14.99

BUY

10. HP Sprocket Portable Photo Printer

For printing all of those adorable Instagram moments—and for getting *all* of the photos off your phone.

HP Sprocket Portable Photo Printer, $99.95

BUY

11. Board Blocks

Kids can sort, learn colors and shapes, and work on their hand-eye coordination.

Wooden Educational Geometric Board Block, $6.39

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12. Ring Doorbell + Echo Dot

A great bundle for the techie in your life.

Ring Doorbell 2 and Echo Dot, $169.00

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13. Pai Technology Circuit Conductor

For the little who wants to learn to code, this offers endless learning fun.

Pai Technology Circuit Conductor Learning Kit, $69.99

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14. Kindle Paperwhite, Audible + Headphones Bundle

Bookworms will love this bundle. Enjoy a new Kindle Paperwhite, wireless bluetooth stereo headphones, and 3 month free trial for Audible for new users.

Kindle Paperwhite Bundle, $139.00

BUY

15. Wooden Grocery Store

We love this imaginative play grocery store, complete with a beeping scanner and hand-cranked conveyor belt.

Melissa & Doug Freestanding Wooden Fresh Mart Grocery Store, $179.99

BUY

Motherly is your daily #momlife manual; we are here to help you easily find the best, most beautiful products for your life that actually work.We share what we love—and we may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

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