Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, has written an article, Criticizing (common criticisms of) praise, in which he says that his critique on praise differs from Carol Dweck’s critique on praise. Kohn views praise as a way of doing something to people instead of working with them and he prefers the latter. Apart from this value judgement, he says, praise has the negative effect of undermining people’s intrinsic motivation for the task they are praised for. Furthermore, praise, according to Kohn, signals conditional acceptance (while children need unconditional care). Kohn points out what he is not arguing for: 1) to praise less frequently, 2) to praise more meaningful, 3) to praise for effort rather than ability, 4) to give kids only praise when they deserve it.

Kohn agrees with Dweck that praising abilities has negative consequences but he argues that praising for effort may backfire, too. He says it “may it may communicate that they’re really not very capable and therefore unlikely to succeed at future tasks”. In addition to this, he says that any kind of praise, whether it be on effort or ability, has the disadvantage of being a mechanism of control and is therefore likely to harm intrinsic motivation and achievement. Kohn suggests that praise is unnecessary and that we can find ways to let children find out for themselves that they have some control over future accomplishments.

My thoughts: First, whether effort-based praise actually has the effect of making children think that they are probably viewed as not very capable and therefore unlikely to succeed at future tasks, as Kohn predicts, is an empirical question. He says, that three studies support this, but does not say which studies. I hope to learn more about this. A second point is one which have made many times before. I argue for a shift away from direct praise to asking questions (see here). I have called these types of questions ‘indirect process compliments’. Instead of saying “you did that well”, you ask: “that looks good, how did you do that?” Why call these types of questions compliments at all? Because there is a subtle and implicit tone of appreciation in the way the question is asked. But perhaps we should not think of them as compliments per se. These questions are also not by definition mechanisms of control, although they can be used as such to some extent. They are mainly used to help children explore what they have done and what worked. Therefore, they are tools to enhance children’s motivation.

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