The Problem with Praise

(And how it Affects Your Child’s Reading Development)


Most parents do their best to shower their children with praise. An A+ on a math test and you’d probably say something like, “Good job!” A clean room and your child might hear, “This looks great. Way to go!”

It’s a common parenting mistake. That’s right—a mistake.

You shouldn’t praise your children; you should encourage them.

What’s the difference between praise and encouragement? Why is praise detrimental to your child? And how can all this talk about praise and encouragement help your child improve his reading? Stay with me as I explain.

Praise acknowledges a child’s accomplishment. Success begets praise. No success…no praise.

Encouragement, on the other hand, acknowledges a child’s effort. A child doesn’t have to achieve anything to receive encouragement; they simply have to try.

Praise includes judgment. It’s preceded by an assessment. It’s a reward for an accomplishment.

Encouragement is not a reward; it’s a gift. It’s an acknowledgment free from judgment.

When you say, “Thank you for putting the dishes in the dishwasher,” the unspoken message is that your acknowledgement is dependent upon them completing the task. That’s praise.

Alternatively, you could offer encouragement: “Thank for you for helping with the dishes.” In this case, it’s clear that your appreciation is for their effort not for their achievement.

I know what you’re thinking: “What’s wrong with praise? What’s wrong with acknowledging achievement?”

When parents give praise instead of encouragement, it can cause 3 problems for their children:

  1. Anxiety
  2. Low Self-Esteem
  3. Distorted Motives

Allow me to explain.


As much as anything in the world, children crave their parent’s approval. It’s a core emotional need. Therefore, when you praise your child, they feel good. It’s like giving them emotional candy. The problem is, when your approval comes mostly in the form of praise (in other words, in exchange for achievement), your child will feel that your approval is conditional. In other words, they’ll feel that they need to succeed to win your approval. That’s a lot of pressure that’s likely to provoke anxiety.

You don’t want your child to feel that their core emotional need is being dangled as a reward for performance. They won’t feel emotionally safe. They’ll feel constantly vulnerable. It won’t be good for their emotional development.

Ironically, praise creates anxiety. Initially, it’s comforting, but ultimately it’s stressful.

Achievement brings rewards. And failure or lack of competency has its consequences. That’s the way of the world. And your child will not be impervious to those harsh realities. But the home, the parent-child relationship, should be a refuge from the need to win.

Throughout your child’s life, as they try to measure up in the eyes of the world, think of yourself as a safe haven, a sanctuary of love and acceptance free from the measures of success.

Every child has a core emotional need—to be unconditionally loved by their mother and father. Praising your child compromises your ability to fulfill that need. Be careful. Offer encouragement instead.


Childhood is full of opportunities to learn new skills and tackle new challenges.

At first, a child learns how to walk, talk, eat with utensils, and put the square peg in the right hole. As the years go by children move on to challenges like reading, writing, getting dressed, hitting a ball, and getting along with others.

The list of challenges in childhood is endless and each one is important to your child’s development not only because it’s how they learn new skills, but, most importantly, because it’s how they build self-esteem.

Self-esteem is the cornerstone of a successful, fulfilling, and joyful life. And therefore, your primary responsibility as a parent is to help your child cultivate healthy self-esteem. Of course, the question is: how do you do that? What’s the process by which a child develops strong self-esteem?

First, let me explain what the process is not. You cannot convince your child that they’re good. Compliments do not build self-esteem. There’s no way to staple self-esteem onto your child. Your child’s self-esteem cannot come from you; it can only come from them. That’s why it’s called self-esteem, because it comes from the self.

How does self-esteem emerge from the self? What would your child have to do to cultivate self-esteem? The answer, in one word, is mastery.

When your child masters skills, when they conquer challenges, that builds self-esteem.

In his landmark book, Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, New York Times bestselling author Dr. Edward Hallowell, also a professor at Harvard, writes:

The roots of self-esteem lie not in praise but in mastery. When a child masters something she couldn’t do before—from walking to riding a bike to playing the piano to speaking Spanish—her self-esteem naturally rises, whether she receives any praise or not. If you want your child to have a high sense of self-esteem, don’t go out of your way to praise her; go out of your way to make sure she experiences mastery in many different ways.

Dr. Hallowell states above, as I did, that praise does not build self-esteem. But I want to go a step further. In my opinion, praise interferes with the building of self-esteem. It blocks it.


The process of building self-esteem requires the continual tackling of challenges, it requires mastery, but praise discourages children from tackling challenges because they don’t want to risk losing the emotional candy.

Do you see it?

Praise feels good to a child. But to be praised they have to succeed. A child subconsciously thinks, “Why risk my chances of success on something challenging? Let me play it safe and protect my emotional candy.”

Praise discourages challenges. It inhibits your child’s willingness to experiment.

Carol Dweck, PhD, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, found in her research that praise is harmful to children. She discovered that children who were praised for being smart after succeeding with a task chose easier tasks in the future. In other words, the children became risk averse. They feared making mistakes, which inhibited them from tackling challenges and achieving mastery. On the other hand, children who were given encouragement were willing to try new things and strive for mastery.

When you encourage your child, you communicate unconditional love. You convey that it’s ok if they don’t succeed. That’s comforting to children and promotes risk taking, practice, and a go-for-it attitude. Ironically, encouragement, not praise, inspires children to strive for success.


Since praise is a response to success, the lack of praise gets interpreted as failure. In this way, praise is addicting, children end up chasing their next “hit,” and you become the dealer feeding the addiction.

The psychologist Robin Grille wrote, “Happiness can only be derived from doing what is intrinsically rewarding to us, and this does not require others’ applause.”

You don’t want your child to be a reward addict or a crowd pleaser. It’s important for children to do things for their own sake or because it’s the right thing to do or because it has intrinsic value to them. But when children receive constant praise for their successes it distorts their motives.

Offer encouragement not praise, and you’ll keep your child’s motives pure.

So, what does all this have to do with your child’s reading?

It’s simple. I can explain very briefly.

Too many tutors and reading programs offer children rewards (or praise) for reading achievement. But, as explained above, this is counterproductive.

Yes, children need a reward system. Reading Buddy Software has a built in motivation system that uses points and prizes. But, the points are earned and the prizes are won based on your child’s effort. They win by reading. Period. And that kind of motivation system promotes more reading, which, of course, results in reading success.

Learn more about Reading Buddy Software’s Point & Prize System.

See what kind of success children have using Reading Buddy Software.

Buy now


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