How Praise and Rewards Can Be as Damaging as Punishment

Parents of our generation are coming to understand that punishment is psychologically damaging and ineffective at improving children’s behavior. But many of us who’ve condemned spanking and solitary confinement (time-outs/grounding) are still unaware of the damage created by a more insidious form of control – rewards and praise.

While a “good job” here and an “atta boy” there seem harmless enough, psychologist Robin Grille says praising or “rewarding children’s compliance is the flip-side of punishing their disobedience.”

In other words, they are two sides of the same coin.

“Praise is the sweet side of authoritarian parenting,” Grille writes for The Natural Child Project.

While it may seem more loving to entice children with carrots than to beat them with sticks, Grille argues both punishment and rewards accomplish the same result – reducing the relationship between parent and child to one of the controller and the controlled.

Same goes for teachers who take away recess for talking too much during class or give gold stars for sitting still and listening silently. Neither the punishment nor the reward is delivered out of unconditional love or support for the child to develop into whomever he or she wants to become. Both are attempts to manipulate, control and mold the child into what his parents, teachers, government and future employers want him to become.

Psychologist David Premack writes that rewards and praise,  along with punishment, are “a principal means of social control:”

The difference between reward and punishment lies in timing, in when an individual is required to ‘pay’ for the opportunity to perform [the desired] response. For reward, the individual pays before; in punishment, the individual pays after.

… The combination of finite resources and differences in human abilities guarantees the inequality of the distribution of the world’s goods. Some have an excess while others manage with the merest necessities. Reward and punishment are based on this disparity…

…Reward and punishment eliminate individual freedom, placing some members of society under the control of others. An individual who possesses everything is not subject to either reward or punishment … He is free, invulnerable to contingencies, not subject to control by others.

Only those who lack goods can be rewarded or punished. Only they can be [persuaded] to increase the [desired] responses to gain goods they lack, or forced to make [perform] for goods that do not belong to them…

Grille says intelligent, less gullible, children “feel something icky in praise.”

“It makes them feel condescended to. Praise is a reminder that the praiser has power over them. It diminishes the child’s sense of autonomy, and, like a little pat on the head, it keeps them small.”

The praise-giver, he says is like an “assessor, judging what merits praise and what doesn’t.”

Even though phrases like “good girl” or “nice work” are positive judgements, they are still judgments, and the feeling of being judged or evaluated can be scary and alienating for a child, Grille said.

“Children, like adults, naturally recoil from being controlled,” he said.

Rewards can feel like start to feel like punishment, Grille says, because the child is denied the reward, praise or approval – which suddenly becomes a need – until he “comes up with the goods … the child who is used to being praised begins to feel inadequate if the praise doesn’t come. Nothing feels more defeating to a child than to miss out on a reward that he or she had been conditioned to expect.”

Grille says sometimes the reason parents compulsively use praise is because their own childhood wounds have left them desperate for approval and admiration, and praising their children makes them feel good about themselves. Children can sense when parents are praising them to boost their own self-esteem, and feel robbed by it, he says.

“Some children refuse to produce what they are naturally good at, because they are repulsed by their parents’ gloating.”

A better way

Rather than our praise, approval or reward (aka our evaluations) what our children really want and need from us is appreciation, acceptance, encouragement, admiration and unconditional love. They want us to delight in them.

If you’re feeling confused, as I was, about the difference between praise and appreciation, here are a few tips from Grille:

1. Focus on the child’s pleasure – Instead of “good job,” try saying “that looked fun.”
2. Help the child self-evaluate – “Do you like how your painting turned out?”
3. Ask about the child’s inner experience – “How did you feel about the story you wrote?”
4. Use I statements, instead of labeling the child – “I love those colors” or “I love when you sing” instead of “You’re such a good artist” or “You’re so good at singing.”
5. Comment on the behavior, not the person – “That was passionate acting” instead of “you’re a great actress.”

Ultimately, it’s not so much the words or phrases that we use that matter, but our intention behind them. Is our intention to control, manipulate or shape the child into what we want them to be? Or to help encourage them to blossom into who they already are?





11 responses to “How Praise and Rewards Can Be as Damaging as Punishment”

  1. Amy Markman Avatar
    Amy Markman

    I love your article! As someone who was raised in the punishment/reward paradigm, with both excessive undeserved punishment as well as excessive undeserved reward, I couldn’t agree more with your analysis about the resulting feeling this model creates. Furthermore, as someone who worked with children in a classroom for several years, and is guilty of both heaping praise and also of taking away privileges, I know for a fact that it does merely create a culture of control, rather than one of respect and love. I admire your ideas for changing the language we use in order to embody appreciation, rather than judgement. Thank you for sharing!!

  2. Cody Cox Avatar

    To sum it up, It sounds like Grille is suggesting that we should give positive, personal opinions as opposed to giving positive, impersonal labels.

    “I like the colors you used” rather than, “You’re such a good artist.”


    “I enjoy it when you sing” rather than, “You are a great singer.”

  3. Tara Avatar

    Thanks for this article! My intention is encouragement and empowerment rather than praise/judgement, but I realize I don’t always succeed at it. Knowing what not to do is easier for me than knowing what to do. I loved your suggestion to speak of how much enjoyment they’ve had. That really makes sense to me and is wy better than another suggestion i heard of-praising hard work (so there is sometging wrong if we do it the smart and easy way?). I’ve spoken of enjoyment before sometimes, but was just trying to think of a good thing to say. I wasn’t clear on it before as a strategty. Anyway you connected some dots for me. Thank you!

  4. Crystal Avatar

    If you gave yourself a chance to understand what this article is might get that it is unilaterally accurate. The entire existence of mankind has developed by controlling humans…read it again with an open mind…piece it together from a different perspective…then maybe it will be more comprehensive as to the meaning of this article…

  5. Gavin Avatar

    You’re extreeeemely cherrypicking your examples. This makes sense yes for a very narrow set of behaviors like artistic styles in painting, or maybe choosing a major, etc. But it does not apply to a vast majority of behaviors, where indeed we do want them to behave in a certain way and not in another, for good reason. If you kid took a dump on the floor, would you say “I really love how you express yourself in where you choose to defecate!” No, because that’s straight up a wrong behavior if you want to get by in the world at all. So is yelling at people, stealing things, punching other kids in the face, throwing tantrums to get what you want, not having any work ethic, etc. etc.

    Yes, it might come across as controlling, because that’s exactly what it is, and NEEDS to be for those things — if they’re not doing those things correctly, they need to be controlled to change.

    Most things aren’t subjective expression like painting.

    1. Clare Avatar

      Not at one point did it say about rewarding or commenting positively on negative behavior. The article was about positive behavior that dome people try to control to get more.

  6. Kathleen mcburney Avatar
    Kathleen mcburney

    So, what would you suggest with a teen that hates school, hates learning, doesnt want to do schoolwork, just wants to sleep late and do his own thing, because he doesnt feel like anything that the school is teaching himis important. He doesnt see the use for algebra or writing an essay. He says he will never need to do that in life. What would you suggest I do to encourage him to learn? Ive tried taking away games, cell phone etc, nothing seems to work. I have also signed him out to homeschool, but he still is not interested in learning. I am really struggling to get him to do any work.

    1. Clare Avatar

      Research unschool . I would take him out of school as he is obviously too bright to be brainwashed thank goodness. Give him time to recover and when he is ready just allow opportunity and give tools for him to find his own interests and path

      1. Kimberly Dean Avatar
        Kimberly Dean

        Good answer to a really tough but too common of a question.

      2. Marty Avatar

        That’s your answer to a more complex question Clare ??? You have made unbelievable assumptions from a few lines written.
        A teen doesnt want to go to school so he’s a bright kid.

        There is more going on which needs to be explored and then a plan can be introduced.

        Why don’t you just give him a good star ⭐️

    2. Kimberly Dean Avatar
      Kimberly Dean

      I believe that a child raised with video games and cell phone and tv garbage to occupy his imagination has a disadvantage in life. Those type things brainwash ppl. They were designed to brainwash and they have succeeded. A child raised on nature and love and opportunity will be open minded to education.