Discussing Praise with Caregivers/Teachers of the Praise-Avoidance Movement
There is a philosophy arising in schools across the U.S. regarding decreasing or eliminating the use of praise when interacting with children. PCIT providers have come across this philosophy of praise-avoidance via teachers and caregivers, and have reached out to the PCIT community to discuss. We have written a response addressing how we can talk to concerned caregivers and teachers about PCIT praise. With permission, we have included helpful quotes from PCIT providers who have encountered praise-avoidance in the field.
Some of the content being shared with praise-avoidance philosophy specifies alternatives to praise, and these alternatives often fall into the PCIT categories of Labeled Praises, Reflections, and Behavior Descriptions. This can give us a jumping off point for discussing praise with parents or teachers who question its validity; the movement does support PRIDE skills, but is essentially eschewing using them “incorrectly”. This discussion also brings up the opportunity to discuss different cultural perceptions of praises and complimentary phrases.
“…PCIT distinguishes ‘labeled’ and ‘unlabeled’ praise, while this [praise-avoidance] parenting philosophy recognizes unlabeled praises like ‘good job!’ as meaningless praises, but labeled praises are [considered to be] ‘genuine statements’ where you ‘take interest in your child for who they are’… Parents (and teachers) could be approached from that perspective: they are already using some of the same tools, just calling them by a different name or no name at all.”
– Maria Usacheva, UC Davis Doctoral Student
Other Cultures: Parenting Styles & Praise
In many cultures, from Germany to Korea to Mexico, the phrases that we call Praise in PCIT are not part of a parent’s verbal repertoire – and many times aren’t commonly used from one adult to another, either. This means that the learning curve for creating phrases of praise may be steep, and parents from these cultures may particularly struggle with feeling awkward and unnatural when praising. Some cultures have parenting styles that involve a high use of commands and criticism to structure behavior, while silence is the response to good behavior in place of praise. These differences do not mean that the parents do not have loving, attentive relationships with their children.
It is important to respect these cultural differences by thoroughly explaining the reasons behind every aspect of PCIT, while validating caregivers’ attentiveness and relationship with their child(ren). The most convincing explanation often arises from the results observable by the caregiver in treatment: improved child behavior, decreased stress, and a more positive parent-child relationship. Some caregivers are also responsive to cited research results.
Customized Discussion of the Evidence-Based Benefits of Praise
We should approach caregivers who have questions about the validity of praise-avoidance philosophy with the same respect as caregivers with different cultural backgrounds. We should acknowledge that there may be some aspects of criticism that are valid under certain circumstances, thus better enabling our ability to explain the kind of praising that is coached in PCIT.
For example, it may be valid to criticize “overpraising”, that is, praising almost every action the child takes, as well as praising beyond necessity (e.g., after misbehavior has disappeared). Another example might be overusage of particular unlabeled praises, such as a high frequency of “you’re amazing” or “you’re so cute”.
Additionally, we know that every family has different needs and styles, and some caregivers may already have a high-praise relationship with their child.
Explain the difference between constructively used labeled praises, and their many forms and benefits, versus the high-frequency unlabeled praises that praise-avoidance philosophy is shunning.
Tips from the Field
“In PCIT praise is a big component for re-building parent-child relationships that have been worn down by criticism and negative responses or by neglect. With that in mind, there are parent-child dyads for whom praise is not rewarding – so keeping our clinical eye on the actual responses, personalities and what is rewarding for each family is important.”
– Betsy Rogers, LCSW, IMH-E
“The specific functions of praise in a PCIT, dyadic context are also interesting. So many of us have seen first-hand the transition from [Unlabeled Praise] to [Labeled Praise] functioning as an apparent punishing condition to functioning as a reinforcer. I often remind parents/teachers and others concerned about this ‘debate’ that there may also be differences to take into account in typically developing children where you may have the luxury to rely more on intrinsic motivation, compared to the situations we deal with as PCITers: kids in already fractious relationships with their parents where the coercive cycle has already taken root.”
– Steven Kurtz, PhD, ABPP
Praise: Isn’t It Just Manipulation?
One of praise-avoidance philosophy’s criticisms of praise in general is that praises can be seen as “manipulating” the child into acting for the parent, rather than making their own decision to do the right thing. The idea is that this makes kids less independent and self-motivated.
However, praise-avoidance programs allow for correction and redirection of child behaviors, while viewing praise as an inappropriate way to offer “evaluation”. The correction and redirection skills taught in praise-avoidance programs show a belief that children do rely on us to learn from our specific feedback (E. Adams-Costa, PCIT listserv, 2018). Therefore, the difference in thinking comes from how to deliver that feedback.
If a caregiver or teacher is struggling with the idea of praise as a form of manipulation, discuss the differences between structuring and manipulation as well as the difference between relationships that use these tactics. If you are saying nice, complimentary things to an adult friend in order to get them to buy you a birthday gift, you are using manipulation. But we know that a parent-to-child relationship is different from an adult-to-adult relationship, from the main goals of the relationship to the behaviors appropriate for the relationship.
As adults, it is our responsibility to help and protect children. We can avoid “coddling” them while remembering that we have an influence on their world which we must regard responsibly and thoughtfully. That is what structuring achieves: providing a framework for children to safely and enjoyably navigate the world for themselves. Manipulating, on the other hand, is an attempt to control others’ behavior to enhance your own personal enjoyment of the world.
In most caregiver-child relationships, moderate use of praising to guide and reinforce safe and positive behaviors enables safe and positive experiences for the child.
Tips from the Field
“I’ve been able to soften teachers by having them give reasons along with praises (‘thank you for listening to your classmate quietly so they have a chance to share’). Being extra purposeful with praise and targeted with what is praised also helps.”
– Elizabeth Adams Costa, PhD
“Another interesting angle on this comes from the thoughtful work in the Growth Mindset (GM) literature, where manipulations of praise have been studied extensively. My take-away has been: keep the praises tethered to effort and process as opposed to natural gifts, and you can satisfy the concerns of the GM folks and the PCITers. ‘Great job sticking with that puzzle’ is a great LP [Labeled Praise] in both paradigms, but ‘You’re an amazing puzzle solver’ is more problematic for GM folks, but still satisfies criteria for an LP in a PCIT frame.”
– Steven Kurtz, PhD, ABPP
Praise: Are We Forcing Judgment Onto Children?
Praise-avoidance philosophy sees praise as a “judgment” of the child that detracts from their independence and autonomy, causing them to care more about the caregiver’s perceptions than their own.
When it comes to artwork and other creative projects, there is something to be said for viewing praise as a judgmental tool. To avoid this, “I like how hard you worked on this project,” “It was cool to see you how much fun you had working on this,” “You used so many colors”, and other behavioral observations, are all positive alternatives to “You’re an amazing artist/this is an amazing drawing” that the praise-avoidance movement rejects.
However, when it comes to safe, positive behavior, such as keeping seatbelts on and keeping hands to ourselves, praising a child who often hits when they use “gentle hands” on a friend or pet is not a judgment. It is a reinforcer of safe behaviors that will make life easier for the child.
A more accurate description of praise in this realm may be to say that praise informs a child of acceptance. You can modify praises to reflect this acceptance rather than endowing them with superlative positives. Instead of “you’re the smartest kid ever,” show acceptance with specificity: “I like how happy you seem when you read lots of books”, “It’s great how you focused on your homework until you finished it”, or behavior descriptions such as an enthusiastic “You finished your science project!”
Tips from the Field
“Attachment theory tells us that kids need praises for lots of reasons: ‘I love you no matter what’, unconditionally, is a need. [There are also praises] for achievements, [e.g.] “good job on that homerun!” …As adults, we may want to work on non-attachment from getting praise from others for more complicated reasons; but I think asking children to do this is developmentally inappropriate.”
– Jennifer Knell, RN, MA, LCPC
We hope that this article has been a useful tool in opening discussions with teachers and caregivers who have questions about praise, particularly in regards to praise-avoidance philosophies and movements.
Original graphic shared in praise-avoidance article as “alternatives to praise” with PCIT Labels added on side
Here are some web links to share with parents & teachers to enhance or aid acceptance of PCIT content discussing the benefits of Praise:
CDC’s Essentials for Parenting Toddlers & Preschoolers – Praise & Imitation:
CDC’s Answers From Experts: What to do if your child acts up after being praised & more
BoysTown: Accentuate the Positive: Using Praise to Change Children’s Negative Behavior
Using Labeled Praise – from the Child Development and Rehabilitation Center:
Discipline with Preschoolers: How Discipline Works and how to use it
Parent praise to 1- to 3-year-olds predicts children’s motivational frameworks 5 years later
What good is labeling what’s good? A field experimental investigation of parental labeled praise and child compliance
Using Praise to Enhance Student Resilience and Learning Outcomes