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Ultimate Guide to Building Intrinsic Motivation in Your Child via Praise

Praise. We all love it. Children work hard to win our praise and bask in its glow once received. What exactly is praise? Praise is our expression of approval towards actions. Henderlong and Lepper (2002) further stated that praise is “a complex social communication in which the role of the recipient is just as critical as the role of the evaluator.” 

Therefore, praise has different effects based on how it is delivered and who receives the information. Praise is beneficial in motivating young children to repeat good behaviors. It also increases their confidence in their abilities. Praise makes children feel good about themselves and drives motivation.

Henderlong and Lepper (2002) studied the effects of praise on intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is performing a task for enjoyment. Children who have intrinsic motivation show greater lifelong persistence and enjoy learning. Building intrinsic motivation is an abstract concept, but we can use praise to give our children the gift of intrinsic motivation. 

Four Areas of Praise to Increase Intrinsic Motivation

  • Sincerity
  • Performance Characteristics
  • Competence and Self-Efficacy
  • Standards and Expectations

Sincerity

Sincerity is the most essential aspect of praise. If the child being praised doesn’t believe us, they will automatically ignore us; thus, the praise will have no effect. Praise may appear insincere if it is too general or over the top. We should praise specific actions. For example, “I love that you are sitting with your feet on the floor.” Or “Good job brushing your teeth.”

When praise is specific, there is less conflict between what the child hears and what they believe about themself. Sincere praise should also reflect the difficulty of the task. If a child is praised for a task that is too easy, they will discount the praise.

Verbal praise should also reflect our non-verbal behavior. We can’t say “good job” while frowning or crossing our arms. Sincerity is further reflected in the delivery time of the praise. If we have a long pause between the action and praise, it seems as if we have to think of a good response, and it was not spontaneous.

One key point about sincerity is that children under the age of 7 interpret praise literally. Despite this, children can pick up insincerity through nonverbal cues.

Performance

When we fail, our performance will improve on a second attempt if we think we did not put in enough effort. Our performance worsens on a second attempt if we believe our ability is lacking. Applying this concept to children means they will assume punishment is due to little effort, and no punishment is because they do not have the innate ability.

Research shows that young children have less complex reasoning between effort and ability when compared to older children. Children begin to distinguish between effort and ability in the 3rd grade. These facts are important because younger children base their self-worth on effort and ability. Therefore, if you praise a young child for an easy task, they will respond positively, but an older child might see that praise as negative. The older child will feel they are receiving praise because they lack ability in that area.

Knowing whether to praise a child’s effort or ability can be challenging and is sometimes task-specific. When we focus on ability, children will try to prove their intelligence. When we focus on effort, children will focus on better skills even if they make mistakes.

How does praise affect children when they fail?

When children fail, those who were praised for their ability display decreased enjoyment of the task, decreased persistence, and poor performance if the task is given again.

This is why, we should be careful not to overly praise effort, as hard work sometimes leads to failure no matter what we do. Therefore, we can praise strategies the child uses or the thought process behind a task.

A research study by Kamins and Dweck (1999) demonstrated that children praised for a process vs. praise for person (good girl) show greater resiliency when faced with failure.

There also exists gender differences when it comes to praise. Boys respond more to ability praise, and girls to effort praise.

Autonomy (Why do I do it?)

Praise increases intrinsic motivation and autonomy when given in the form of information. For example, “You did well on the math problems.” However, autonomy decreases when praise seems controlling. For example, “You did well on the math problems because you should.” Autonomy also increases when praise is a part of the activity (softball game).

There are gender differences in praise that lead to autonomy. Girls may become dependent on feedback and look to please the evaluator. Boys tend to focus on achievement evidence, thereby developing internal standards. Studies have found these differences happen because girls focus more on interpersonal relationships.

Competence and Self-Efficacy (Can I do this?)

The concepts of competence and self-efficacy focus on our belief that we can accomplish a task. When children receive information-specific praise, they engage in a task for extended periods. Studies have found that children perform better when they receive information praise that compares their performance to a peer. Peer comparison may seem positive but should not be used because the child may not learn how to cope when others outperform them. The child might also avoid challenges and only feel satisfied if they consistently outperform others.

Therefore, information praise should focus on mastery of the task at hand.

Standards and Expectations

Praise can reflect performance standards and expectations needed for praise. Intrinsic motivation increases when praise gives specific mastery standards along with reasonable expectations. Children learn where to harness their energy for future use, and they can develop an understanding of how their performance was strong and how they need to improve. Specific praise includes:

  • Standard of evaluation
  • Behaviors that define a good job
  • Expectations of the praiser

Intrinsic motivation decreases when praise reflects unrealistic standards. Children may feel pressured to perform. Their self-worth may also be affected, and they can feel worthless if they fail because they did not receive praise.

Summary

Increasing intrinsic motivation in young children is possible. It can be accomplished via sincere praise, promoting autonomy, allowing for competence without social comparison, and giving realistic expectations and standards. When praising children, we should also take into account their gender and age to make sure it is appropriate. Remember, the benefits of intrinsic motivation are long-lasting. Lay a good foundation for your child today.


References

Henderlong, J., & Lepper, M. R. (2002). The effects of praise on children’s intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 128(5), 774–795. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.128.5.774

Kamins, M. L., & Dweck, C. S. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology, 35(3), 835–847. https://doi.org/10.1037/0012-1649.35.3.835

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