Praise That Encourages Intrinsic Motivation

We can be our kids’ greatest fans, and they need us to be. How do we praise them in a manner that truly encourages them? We may have heard that “good job!” or “you’re so smart!” aren’t the ticket. In this episode, Janet shares her specific suggestions and a simple way we can find clarity on what can be a confusing topic.

Transcript of “Praise That Encourages Intrinsic Motivation”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be talking about praise. It’s an interesting topic. It can be confusing because there’s a lot of different advice out there. A lot of it is these really strict do’s and don’ts: don’t say these certain words, don’t do it this certain way. And a lot of those don’ts are actually against our instincts, so that makes it doubly hard to navigate. One thing my mentor Magda Gerber always said is, children don’t need big hooplas. And she recommended that we acknowledge, rather than praise. One thing I loved about Magda was she was all about clarity and simplicity, she didn’t use complicated terms. But she was very exacting in the words she used to communicate; maybe that’s because her original degree was in linguistics.

If we think about it, acknowledge, that’s something that we do that’s really about noticing what our child is doing, noticing what they’re accomplishing. So they have ownership, and we’re just the ones noticing. With praise, we’re more subjective. It’s more about us imbuing what we see—our child’s accomplishment, their activity—with certain qualities. We are giving it a certain value. So it’s more about us than just acknowledging is. Which isn’t to say that we should only ever acknowledge and never, ever praise. Children need a little of both, I think. They want to know what we think sometimes. And one way to be able to discern that for ourselves is to wait for them to ask us what we think, look up at us for that acknowledgement.

But I can understand why Magda emphasized acknowledging over praising. Because she put such a high value—and so do I, I’ve learned the value of it and that it’s really possible for us to nurture it—on intrinsic motivation. And it’s kind of a delicate thing, intrinsic motivation. We can, without meaning to, sort of take that away from our child and make it more about them pleasing others, like us. So we just want to be a little more careful with praise, that’s all. That we’re encouraging our child to still have ownership and not subtly taking that away from them.

Hari Grebler, my friend and associate and my first RIE teacher, she was a recent guest on this podcast in an episode called Every Child, Even a Tiny Baby, Needs Time On Their Own. She has an Instagram page that I love, Hari’s RIE Studio. And she did a post recently, it was just a little video clip, and this was the message on it: It’s okay to be quiet while children are creating. Wow, that’s something kind of surprising to a lot of us. That frees us, right? We don’t have to say something to encourage them. We can just be quiet and honor what they’re doing.

And then she said: When they show you one of their creations, you could ask how they thought to do that. So when they’re asking for feedback, when they’re showing something to us and sharing it with us, then we’re interested in where that came from in them. What made you want to make that? We’re still encouraging the intrinsic desire to make that, instead of labeling it with some kind of praise or qualification of our own. And what that also does is encourages our child to stay in touch with that creative part of them. We’re showing that we value that by asking about it, we’re interested.

Hari also notes: They can get hooked on our oohs and ahs. And why do we ooh and ah sometimes? Because we feel like we’re supposed to, we’re supposed to say something! They’re going to feel discouraged if we don’t talk about what they’re doing, right? That’s a fear that a lot of us have, but it’s not the truth.

The next thing she says: Don’t interrupt them. When children are creating something, just the way that we create or focus on an activity, focus on a skill, we’re in it. And we want to encourage children to be in that flow of what they’re doing. So when we go, Ooh, ah, we’re interrupting that, which makes it a little harder for them to have that longer attention span. They can become accustomed to being interrupted. One of my most popular early posts I wrote is called Baby, Interrupted, and it’s all about that.

Then she says: Never (and I don’t hear a lot of “nevers” coming from her!) never ask them what it is. So, why wouldn’t we want to ask a child what it is? We do want to ask them what it is sometimes, right? Because we’re seeing from this product mentality that we tend to have as adults: You must have been trying to make a thing here. But children, they’re in the process and they’re interested in what it feels like to be painting on this piece of paper, what the brush is doing, what the colors are doing, or whatever they’re working on. They’re interested in what’s going on moment to moment and—especially very young children—they’re not trying to make a finished product. They’re not trying to make something, they’re just making. And they’re into the making of it, openly exploring. All qualities that we want to encourage, right? So it can be counterintuitive for us, but it’s so much more encouraging to not try to get them to zero in on, You have to make a thing here. You have to make something that looks like something, that you can call something, that represents something. You can’t just explore what’s inside you. Big difference, right?

Of course, this is specifically about creative projects, but it really holds true with all kinds of skill development that our children are doing. They’re figuring out a process, and they’re learning. As Magda Gerber said, they’re learning how to learn every time they get the opportunity to do this.

And then Hari says: You could ask them to tell you about their drawing, but that’s even over the top sometimes. Because that’s putting pressure on them. Maybe they don’t have words to describe their drawing, right? Adults that create things can’t always talk about what they’re doing, or they don’t want to.

Finally she says: When I did art with kids at preschool, I would just play with color, abstract, so as not to distract them from their own work. Mostly, let kids work. No need to put up all their work, wait until they think of it. Some children don’t care at all about the piece itself after they’re done. It’s truly the process for them. Hari shares all kinds of jewels like this on her Instagram page.

Most of us have heard that it’s not a great thing to say “good job” or to use terms that represent fixed traits, like, “You’re so smart,” “You’re so pretty,” or “You’re so great at this!” Carol Dweck did the famous study on this where children who were told that they were smart, they would perform far worse on the test afterwards than those who were praised for their effort, who were told, “You’re working so hard to get this.” But being told that they’re smart, it imposes pressure. It’s almost like, I can only go down from here. And they would fall apart and not be able to do their best. Fascinating study.

But before we start doubting ourselves too much, I recommend considering what really matters. And, as with everything to do with our relationships with children, what matters is authenticity between us. When we’re talking about what they’re doing, it’s coming from us truly paying attention, noticing and appreciating what our child does. In other words, it’s all about our intention. Because we could say the perfect words or the words that aren’t recommended. We could say, “Wow, you’re a stupendous artist!” or, “Look at all the colors you’re using!” And either way, if we’re doing this purely to try to encourage our kids, because we feel we need to say something, not because we really mean it, children will sense the difference. And this is how they can get hooked into needing that kind of empty validation. It’s empty because we’re doing it because we’re just trying to come up with something to say that’s going to make them feel good. 

That doesn’t work with other people, right? When we’re just trying to say something to make them feel good rather than really meaning it. When the people that are always authentic with us, when they acknowledge something, that feels amazing, right? Because we know that they really mean it. We want to be that person for our children if possible, and try to prevent them from falling into that trap of people-pleasing and being outer-directed.

Here’s some guidelines that I put together that have helped me in terms of praise:

First, don’t praise to deliberately encourage, acknowledge what you genuinely think, like I was just saying. And, as Hari Grebler said, it’s okay to be silent. Children can feel when we’re genuinely interested and attentive, they have a sixth sense for this. Try to trust your child.

Next, be careful about overdoing it. Big hooplas, as Magda called them, tend to make it more about us than about our child. Big hooplas for going on the potty or for eating that certain food. Those will reveal our agendas to our kids and very possibly get in the way of our child going on the potty and eating that certain food. Because now, instead of doing this for themselves because they wanted to and it felt good to make that autonomous choice, they now realize they’re doing it for us. And young children don’t like being told what to do, neither do teenagers, neither do most children. Yes, if this is truly something rare and extraordinary that you’ve seen them struggle with, they’ve worked so hard on it, you both know that—yes, make a big hoopla then, if that’s how you really feel. But save those for those momentous occasions.

Finally, don’t use praise with the intention of gaining cooperation. I see it as misusing praise. So instead of saying, “Oh, good job, good job, good job,” I would say, “Thank you.” “Thank you for helping me do that, that really helps.” Or, “You’re able to do that now with me, and that’s much more fun for me to do it with you. Thanks for your help.”

But even with good job, there are ways we can say that authentically. It’s when we’re looking into our child’s eyes with that twinkle, we’re sharing something we’re both excited about, and we’re saying, I see you and you did it. Good job. When it really means something. That feels so much better than this sort of automatic stamp of approval that “good job” can often be. Good job, good job, I want you to keep going, keep doing this for me. Children don’t need that, and it can get in the way and have the opposite result from what we’re hoping for.

And then getting back into that intention part of this again. This can be our north star: intention. It just sort of clears everything away. What is my intention and how can I achieve it? I think in most of these examples, it seems like mostly our intention is to encourage. We don’t have bad intentions here, it’s very positive. We want to encourage our kids, we want them to feel good about themselves, to have self-confidence, to know they can do things. That’s what we want, right? So here are some ways that are quite related to what I’ve been talking about, about praise, but these are surprising ways to encourage our kids.

First, don’t try; instead, trust. Encouraging kids is not this active process, as I once thought it was. It’s about facilitating rather than doing. Since, as I was saying before, children feel our presence and they sense our emotions and our intentions, trusting in them as capable, unique, evolving individuals is the most valuable support we can give them. And, as Hari Grebler said, it can be silent.

Second, don’t cheerlead. You can do it! Good job, good job, good girl, good boy! Or coax. Come on, just give it a try! Give it a try. Instead, calm yourself and reflect what you see. There’s that acknowledging. “You’re working hard on that. It’s really difficult. Ah, it’s frustrating at times, right? To try to figure that out.” Or, “You did it.” And now I just have to say, my impulse when I first became a parent was to cheerlead, for sure. It’s what I grew up with. The way my family did things is to go over the top, and I still kind of love that in a way. But I see how it interferes and how with me, it interfered with me being outer-directed, looking outside of myself for validation, not feeling self-confident. I don’t think that was the only reason, but that was part of it.

Kids don’t need as much reassurance as we think, especially if they’re not asking for it. I try not to assume that my kids need to be reassured and reassured that I’m in their corner, that I’m rooting them on. They feel if we are or we aren’t, because they’re so magnificently aware. So they feel more genuinely supported when we’re not trying to push it or sell it on them. I mean, then they can feel like they’re letting us down too, right? When they don’t achieve whatever it is.

I’ve also realized that my impulse to actively demonstrate support for my kids mostly stems from my own discomfort with the possibility that they might become frustrated or fail. In other words, it’s not my child needing this feedback as much as it’s my need to want to give it to her. And so that was a big aha! for me. Calming myself is the best way for me to keep the air clear of the pressure and the urgency that can make it seem way more important than it is to my child. And that’s going to create pressure.

Point three, don’t direct or fix. Instead, be patient, fully attentive (if we’re available to be), providing the most minimal direction needed for children to be able to accomplish self-chosen tasks themselves.

Four, don’t over-sympathize or attempt to actively comfort frustration. Instead, allow it, accept it, empathize, acknowledge feelings. Doing all those things normalizes the experience of frustration. Because it is a life experience, and if we can feel it, allow it to be, it passes, we get through it, and we become used to those walls that go up. It doesn’t feel good, but we know it’s going to pass. Or maybe we need to take a break and come back, or maybe we need to give up on it altogether that time and come to it another day or later when we’re more ready. If we offer too much sympathy and comfort, we can teach our children, without meaning to, that this is a really negative situation, a problematic situation that you need my help with, that you can’t handle, that I need you to feel better.

Five, don’t project your own agenda or your urge to get it done and done “right.” Instead, let go and enjoy the journey. Enjoy the surprises. If it doesn’t work, the child learns from that too. If we can be okay with it, they can be okay with it.

Just to continue on this idea that it’s really not about the words, it’s about our intention, and that that can be our north star in helping us to give children praise or acknowledgements in ways that are genuinely connected. I received a note. It’s not the first one I’ve received with this issue, so I thought it would be interesting to respond to regarding this topic of praise.

Hi, Janet-

I can’t thank you enough for your work. It’s been life-changing to our family, and I wish we would’ve found it sooner. We have two daughters, a four-year-old and a one-year-old. We regrettably didn’t start following your methods until our oldest was about three, but she has a great attention span and plays well by herself.

Lately, however, she’s been a constant look at me, look what I’m doing, watch this, Mom, you’re not looking!, Mom, say good job! (Which we haven’t said to her in years and do not say to her sister.) I know this has everything to do with her younger sister, who is now able to do so many things. But I find myself getting exhausted and not wanting to watch every little thing she does. I also don’t want her to feel ignored. I tell her “not right now,” but that doesn’t seem to stop the constant requests. I’ve tried, “Ah, I hear you want me to watch you, but I’m a bit busy,” but the constantly responding to her requests is just exhausting. I find myself more and more withdrawn and lost in my own mind and needing space the more she requests my attention. Other people in her life say things like, “Good job!” or, “Wow, look at you!” And I just don’t feel like it’s authentic. I cannot control how other people speak to her, but she seems more and more bothered that I don’t speak to her that way.

Any encouragement or recommendations would be so greatly appreciated.

This parent gets that certain kinds of common ways we praise children aren’t authentic. The thing is, though, they are still going to get that input. Either from us, before we started considering the way we use those words, or from someone else—relatives, teachers. And what children do when they hear or observe or otherwise experience things, the healthy thing they do is that they process these experiences out. And often they do that with us, their trusted leaders. They’re exploring it. Wow, people are getting all excited with this praise thing. They’re not articulating it this way in their mind, but, Whoa, there’s this energy around this and I’m going to explore that. What does my mother think about it?

Then, if children come up against some resistance with us around something that they’re processing, we’re either shocked or we’re angry or, in this case, we’re just kind of annoyed because we don’t want her to be hooked into that stuff. And then also, Ugh, she wants me to give her this validation that doesn’t seem authentic. And I don’t want to do it and I don’t have time. But it could have just been that very first time we could have just been like, Oh, uh-oh, she wants me to say good job. Or, She’s all into needing validation. What have I done wrong? Or, This isn’t a good sign. So there’s that little bit of hesitation on our part, that little bit of maybe disappointment or worry. They feel that resistance from us. They’re coming up against some resistance, and that can be curious. So they want to explore it further. What if I ask this every second? Why is she getting more and more annoyed? And that can become a stuck place for them.

I believe that could be what’s happening here. She’s getting this subtle pushback when she requests this kind of empty praise, so she’s getting stuck. That means she’s struggling to get that need to just process this out filled. So what I would do in this case, especially because she’s asking for it, I would give her what she’s asking for without hesitation or reservation. Which we can still do authentically, I’m going to try to demonstrate. And I’m also sure that this parent is spot on in that her child is craving that extra attention and validation because of the rivalry with her sibling. So she’s a little more vulnerable, and then now she’s getting this feeling from her mother that what she’s asking for is this kind of annoying big deal. So then she’s getting stuck there doing it again and again and again, not wanting to be this more annoying child, but that’s where it’s going.

I want to try to assure this parent that she can give that validation while still holding onto her personal boundaries. And the way to do that is we’re giving it with an attitude that’s open, welcoming, encouraging. Generous, if you will, instead of stingy. Like, Sigh, alright, I’ll say good job. “You want a good job? Sure! That’s a great job! You’re doing a great job, I’m sure of it! I didn’t see what that was, but great job!”

So just to go over this, the parent says, “Lately, however, she’s been a constant look at me, look what I’m doing, watch this.” “Look at you? You know what? I want to look at you! I have to do this for now, but I can’t wait to come look at what you’re doing. Can you hold onto that? Just let me do this first.” I didn’t stop everything I was doing to go look at her, but I had an open, welcoming attitude about it, while still having my boundary. Which helps free her from that stuck place. I’m not annoyed, I just can’t do it right now, but I’m excited to do it when I can. She says, “Watch this!” “I wish I could! I can’t wait to see you do it after I do this thing.” “Mom, you’re not looking!” “Oh, I know, I know, but I will be!”

And then, you know what? We don’t have to keep talking every time she talks. We can let it go too, but just not with that tension that I’m guessing this parent is feeling. I mean, I understand why she’s feeling that because what her child is asking for is a bothersome thing, and then she won’t let up. But she will let up, I believe, as soon as this parent lets down her guard about it and lets it be. And when she says, “Mom, say good job!” And the mom says, “Which we haven’t said to her in years and do not say to her sister.” “You want me to say good job? Good job! I’m sure you’re doing a great job.” Or if we do see it, let’s say: “Good job, that is a good job actually!” We’re still not using it the way that we don’t want to use it. We’re using it in response to her wanting us to say it. And there’s no harm in that for her.

This parent says, “I tell her, ‘not right now.’ Or I’ve tried, ‘Ah, I hear you want me to watch you, but I’m a bit busy.'” Even saying those things could be fine, but the way she’s saying them, if she’s saying them with, Oh, not right now, but I will! Can’t wait to! Or, You want me to watch you and I wish I could, and I’m sure you’re doing something amazing. I’m a bit busy now, but I’ll be with you. It’s just a different attitude. It’s an unruffled attitude, it’s a there’s nothing to fear here attitude. Me saying those words to her is not going to harm her. It’s only going to help her move through this and see that there’s no pushback coming her way, there’s no odd resistance here. Nothing is a big deal. And it’s that daily diet of the way that we respond that matters. It’s not the once-in-a-while and the aunts and uncles doing it or whoever else is doing it.

I wanted to share this because I feel like it’s a good example of us getting tripped up in words, with all our wonderful intentions, to say the right words. There’s so much focus on words in our environment around parenting. But we’ll find much more clarity and freedom when we let go of those words, so we’re able to see beyond them to what really matters. And I would love to encourage this parent and every parent listening to believe in themselves and know that, in this case, this parent, she could free herself to do both. She can respond lovingly and exuberantly and affectionately with that empty validation her daughter wants right now, while still holding her boundaries and believing in what she believes in: being authentic. I mean, that’s a great value right there, in my opinion. I’m all about authentic. That’s one of the most important things to me, and I feel like it’s underrated these days, but that’s another story.

Let’s not get ourselves hamstrung worrying about words. We can trust ourselves more if we can also trust our child. Trust their intrinsic motivation, that they don’t need us to babble on about what they’re doing. It’s not up to us to mold certain outcomes for them. We provide the environment and the relationship of authenticity and trust, and these qualities we want to mold for our child will bloom on their own. That’s what I’ve seen with my children, the families I’ve worked with. I believe in that 100%: that trying to mold the outcome will only get in our way. It’s not our role at all. Instead, when it comes to our child’s abilities, be an interested spectator. The most interested spectator. Not judgmental, just interested.

Overall, we can stay on track as parents by considering: What do we want? Not just for now, but for the years to come. What do we want? Most of us want honest, authentically and mutually appreciative relationships with our kids. And we hope that they’ll know from the inside out that they are capable, that they are valuable, that they are worthy. Not because we say so, but because we both know so.

I know that we can do this.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Great timing.

    I have five year olds who have gone through a few years of picky eating. It is not a medical necessity, but rather just a small list of things they prefer.

    We are big fans of yours and Ellyn Satter’s, so we are very laissez-faire about it and we do not bribe. We have schedules for snacks and meal times and we offer them only what is available at the table. A few years ago, I adopted the phrase “brave eating.” Like, “Wow! Look at you! You took a bite and that took so much courage.” It sounded stupid at the time and did nothing to make them eat more. I say this even while I acknowledge that Satter recommends you don’t talk about eating at the table.

    At one point, my one five year old point-blank told me not to say anything about his food while he ate. I took it to heart. I stopped commenting and we talked about anything except food.

    Two weeks later, he surprised me by eating three brand new foods over the course of two days. We talked about the colours of the food instead and how colours in food are important because they make us strong. There was no ‘good job,’ and yet the lack of praise made him want to eat more of a previously unfamiliar food.

    1. Hi Cori! I love these wonderful life lessons our kids give us! Thank you so much for sharing x

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