The Sweetest Game in Town: Contributing Without Praise

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

Q: I have always tried to encourage my children in their development through praise of certain behaviors, though I don’t believe in praise or criticism of the person. For instance: “I notice you are doing a great job being patient, or generous, etc.” Or: “Thank you for being so cooperative and respectful during violin practice. Great work!” What’s your perspective on praise?


A: In every workshop I do, I end the day with at least a short segment on gratitude and appreciation. I do this in part because I believe that contributing to one another is one of the sweetest experiences in life, and I want to share with people how they might express their appreciation for such contributions to themselves and others. I also make sure to explore this topic because I believe it’s important to reduce our dependence on praise and rewards.

One reason I try not to praise is because I see it as the exact mirror image of criticism. When I praise someone, I imply that I have the authority and power to judge their behavior. If I believe in moving away from judging something as bad, I want simultaneously to move away from judging something as good.

Here’s a brief example. One afternoon, my family and some friends were throwing Frisbees outside. When my son, who was 3 at the time, threw the Frisbee, it flew in a long arc and landed across the courtyard. The adult friend who was with us said: “You’re a great Frisbee thrower!” My son picked up the Frisbee, threw it again, and it flopped just a couple of feet from him. He said: “I’m a bad Frisbee thrower.” It seemed to me at that moment that he got very clearly the message that the flip side of “good” thrower was “bad” thrower.

When we praise, we are implying that the “good” can turn “bad.” I prefer, instead of good and bad, to try to connect with whether certain behaviors do or do not work for us, whether they meet our needs, and to make observations. “Good Frisbee thrower” might turn into expressing a simple observation: “That Frisbee flew across the entire courtyard.” It might also include expressing my feelings and needs, in simplified language: “Wow, I like watching it glide in the air.” Then, when the Frisbee falls flat, it’s not a bad throw. Perhaps it’s something like this: “That one fell close to you.” And then, based on whether this seems important to the child, you might add an empathic guess: “Are you disappointed? You want to be able to throw farther?” Or, “Are you excited to practice more so you can throw it as far as you want?”

I have another, more serious concern about praise. Praise and rewards create a system of extrinsic motivations for behavior; children (and adults) end up taking action in order to receive the praise or rewards. I want to support children’s intrinsic motivation to act their pleasure in taking a particular action for its own sake, because they are connected to the needs they want to meet. I don’t want anyone to throw a Frisbee, clean the house, do homework, work, or help a person in need, in order to be praised or accepted. I’d like people to do these things out of a desire to contribute to themselves and to others. The joy of contributing becomes the action’s inherent reward; it’s a great pleasure to see how our actions contribute to others. This deep sense of pleasure is lost when we act out of guilt, shame, obligation, fear of consequences or desire for reward.

Alfie Kohn wrote a book that I found quite helpful on this topic, called Punished by Rewards. If you are interested in more insight into this topic, including how praise and rewards actually lower academic performance, I highly recommend this book. The one drawback to this book is that Kohn identifies the problem, but doesn’t really suggest ways to address it. I like what NVC offers here (similarly to when our needs are not met): a powerful way to connect with people when we enjoy their actions, which is to express to them what they have done that has enriched our lives, our feelings about it, and what needs of ours were met.

Let’s take the examples you wrote above and translate them into NVC.

You wrote: “I notice you are doing a great job being patient.” In NVC, you would look for a clear observation, because patience, generosity, etc., are all interpretations. So, you might say: “I noticed you occupied yourself the whole time I was on the phone without talking to me. I’m very grateful because I needed support to focus on the conversation.” (The tone of voice and eye contact, of course, would communicate more of the warmth of the feeling than the words can convey.)

And your second example: “Thank you for being so cooperative and respectful during violin practice. Great work!” Again I would first focus on the observation: what did your child say or do that you interpret as cooperative or respectful? For example: “When you practiced your violin today for twenty minutes without a reminder from me, I felt so happy because I appreciate cooperation and peace between us. I was also excited because I love sharing music with you.”

Like anything else in using NVC, the precise language is not important. What matters is the intention to express our appreciation or gratitude not in order to motivate or judge, but as a way to connect and celebrate together. If we sometimes spontaneously call out, “Good job!”, let’s not worry about it. And let’s explore a greater variety in expressing the pleasure and joy we take in our children.

When we express to people how their behavior contributes to meeting our needs, we give them the gift of acknowledgement and the sweetness of knowing that their actions have been a contribution. As Marshall Rosenberg says, “There is no sweeter game in town.”


© by Inbal Kashtan 2003

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