Praise versus Encouragement

Praise = bad

Encouragement = good

The results of praise are anxiety, perfectionism, paralysis, defiance, avoidance, obsequiousness, competitiveness, judgementalism, selfishness, dependence. And more.

The results of encouragement are motivation, steady skill-development, internal locus of control, self-reliance, self-esteem, independence, acceptance of self and others. And more.

Praise is global. It’s what we offer after the race has been won. It is a judgement on the deed or the person: “What a good boy!” “You won!” “Your drawing is beautiful.”

Encouragement is specific; it is in the details. Encouragement notices changes and recognizes success in the process: “When you close your closet doors at the end of a clean-up, everything looks so complete.” “That shot in the top corner of the net was impossible to stop.” “I notice the butterfly on the left side of the page is facing right, and the one on the right side is facing left. Nice symmetry.” “Wow, you have put in 4 hours on your project already!”

Notice that praise puts the praiser in a position of authority. When our comments are judgements (good, bad, pretty, worked hard) but don’t specify what is being valued, the one receiving the praise can either feel it is insincere and cease trying to impress or improve, or feel they are only worthy when things are done “right”, or beautifully, or the game is won. The ability to judge one’s own actions and results in a way that motivates from within is lost. Assessing is done by teachers, parents, bosses, coaches.

Unhealthy competition is fostered when praise is used. There are good results and bad results; smart and dumb; biggest reward, no reward. Underlying the duality is the idea that there can be only one winner in any encounter. This may even be the seed for Type A personalities – those who are aggressively competitive, often at a cost to those around them.

Encouragement, on the other hand, is curious. It asks questions and seeks understanding. It is encouraging to have someone pay attention to the little things you add to a job – like closing the closet doors, or creating symmetry in your butterfly drawing. That kind of attention to the details, helps us appreciate our own process and efforts. The pattern is set for us to seek out the satisfying aspects, rather than engage in an accept/reject analysis.

I could say more, especially, about the immediate difference you can see as a teacher when you slip from encouragement to praise or vice versa. Watching your toddler will produce the same obvious result. At other ages, and depending on how genuinely encouragement is offered, and in what setting, it might take longer to see results. Especially, if a child has become discouraged and unwilling to try, in spite of the seemingly positive attempts of adults. Praise without success is hollow; encouragement looks for the smallest action and rewards it with a quick (maybe even non-verbal) noticing. This can take time.

Knowing the difference and making the effort to use curiosity, noticing – encouragement – will produce positive results with kids and adults.

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