Tuesday, February 13, 2007

'good job'

I had a request a week or so ago to write about my thoughts on the topic of praising kids ("good job"). I've been holding off, looking for the right inspiration. There have literally been volumes written on this, by actual experts in the field of child rearing, what could I possibly add to their advice?

My inspiration came in the wee hours of the morning today, and is pictured above. That's my best ewe, Freckles, and her new twins, sporting home-made (at 3 am, yawn!) lamb coats because it was about -3 degrees F when then were born. (They'll wear the coats for a couple of days until they're better able to maintain their own body temperature, or until the temps rise above freezing, whichever comes first -- I'm betting on the lambs.)

So, when I trudged down to the barn at 2am to find these adorable little babies, do you think I said "Good job!" to Freckles? No, of course not. Not because I'm not impressed by her natural birthing abilities (quite to the contrary, I am CONTINOUSLY amazed at what animals are capable of!). But because she doesn't care if I'm impressed or not. She gets her own intrinsic satisfaction out of raising her lambs well, she doesn't need to be told that she's doing a good job.

How does this relate to praising kids, you ask? People are all born with the same innate capacity to recognize when they've done well, and the ability to feel proud of their accomplishments. And if left alone with it, they continue to strive for accomplishment (whatever they consider that to be), and continue to feel pride in their efforts, all of their own motivation and appraisal system. THEY determine what is success and what is not. And the self-found pride in accomplishment is their driving force to strive for more. This makes for an integrated person, full of self esteem and inner motivation.

Let's say we take the above child, and rather than letting them define their own measure of accomplishment, we start praising them for what WE deem to be a "good job". What does this tell them? First, it tells them that what WE think is more important than what THEY feel. That working towards a "good job" is more important than working towards feelings of self-accomplishment. (Add "prizes" onto that, and it compounds the issue even further.) Beyond that, it takes them out of the integration of an internal experience and applies external criteria for success, actually drawing them out of the experience itself and making them an outside observer of their own work. (Talk about stifling the creative proccess!) And even more damaging is that when they DON'T hear the external praise they are working for, they then deem themselves a failure, eroding their blossoming self-esteem, when in fact, the usual "person of power" (Mom, Grandma, Teacher) doing the praising probably just didn't think to say "good job" at that moment. Allowing children to develop their own internal measure of accomplishement is the most improtant step you can take to ensure the development of a healthy self-esteem.

Providing rewards and reinforcement makes for some pretty great animal training -- it lets the animal know when it's doing something that pleases us, and makes us able to get that response on cue. (Think trained seal.) Is that what we really want for our kids? No -- we want them to be free-thinking, creative people with internal motivation and drive and their own system of appraisal to determine when they are right and when they are wrong. Kids that strive for external gratification are easily influenced by peers into all sorts of dangerous situations -- drugs, alcohol, deviant behaviors, anything to gain them that external praise and acceptance from their peers. Which is the last thing on earth that parents are trying to promote when they pat their toddler on the head and say "good job!". But that's the slippery slope that is praise. It's what ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis, the most "popular" method for "treating" Autism) and other behavioral models of Autism "treatment" is based on, and is why I rejected it as a possibility for Jacob, despite the fact that it was the treatment reccommended by the Developmental Pediatrictian that made Jacob's diagnosis.

In the case of kids with ASD (and really any special need), the negative effects of praise is amplified. As parents and educators, we are desperate to make that connection with our hard-to-connect with kids, and we tend to be even more over the top with the praise than the average parent. Even though I was well aware of the damage of "good job", I found it coming out of my mouth all over the place in the early years of trying to get a handle on Autism. I'm happy to say I've since learned to control myself. But it wasn't easy, it took effort and some major brain-reprogramming on my part. Just recognizing that I was doing it was the first step, and I'd actually say out loud "good job! Oh, I shouldn't have said that." Eventually, the "I shouldn't say that" started coming before the "good job" and that's when I finally had control of it. Now it never occurs to me to utter "good job".

What do you say instead? Because, truly, we want to make note of our kids' accomplishments, right? And of course, the kids themselves want us to see and comment on what they've done. And that's the key right there -- to recognize their work without assigning a value to it. So when Jacob shows me a piece of artwork he's especially proud of, I'll comment "Wow, look at that!" or "That's a really high mountain" or "whoa, that's HUGE!" or "Oh, you colored that flower red". I leave the appraising of that -- the assigning of value -- to Jacob. He is just as proud of me commenting on the color of his drawing as he is if I said "good job!", and there is no unwanted fall-out. His pride is self-motivated and self-assigned.

So what did I say to Freckles when I saw her lambs this morning? "Wow, look at that!" She didn't need me to say anything. She already knew she'd done a good job.


At 3:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You say that all people are born with the ability to know when they have done well and are motivated to achieve success. That is not true of many children with severe autism. Typically developing children learn readily through observation and imitation; it is natural for them to acquire the behaviors and skills they see modelled, and they find this kind of imitation intrisically reinforcing. Also, typical kids are internally motivated to play "appropriately" - that is, in a way that leads to proper brain development and learning. None of this can be assumed in the case of a child with classic autism. Because their brains are wired differently, they do not find learning behaviors such as observation, imitation, and play to be automatically reinforcing. They prefer activities that do not help their brains to develop properly: repetitive, stimming behaviors. External motivation is necessary to move them out of their own world.
As for the claim that praise teaches kids to value what adults think over what they feel, this is not always a bad thing. When a kid feels like biting his arm a hundred times a day or putting his head through a glass window, would you really want him to put that feeling ahead of a rational concern for safety? It's cruel and dangerous to leave a child at the mercy of a brain that isn't working as it was intended to, and madness to wait for a severely autistic child to develop internal motivation to practice a new skill. ABA remains the only method that has proven, in published clinical trials, to be successful in teaching appropriate behavior and skills to over 90% of autistic children. You're worried about how children taught this way will have the internal motivation to stand up to their peer group? Without the skills children can learn through ABA, there will be no need to worry about that - they won't have a peer group.

At 4:21 PM, Blogger Harvest Mom said...

No, it's certainly true that an Autistic child's brain is not functioning properly and a child with Autism cannot on their own find that inner motivation and reinforcement. I didn't mean to imply that you should do NOTHING to mediate this. I just meant that you shouldn't approach it by using praise. RDI certainly addresses these problems, although in the case of severe behavioral problems (self-trauma, etc), it may be faster to make behavioral improvement via a behavioral model first. (Only makes sense, right? That's what that sort of program is set up for.) But if you ONLY do a behavioral model, all you'll get is behavior modification, and that's certainly not in a child's best interest. So yeah, one step at a time, and if the child is having severe behavioral problems, that will probably need to be addressed first in order for true Autism remediation work to begin. And then AFTER that (actually, during that), the development of some of these natural intrinsic functions will come about. The key is not too much of the behavioral stuff (you don't want that to be ALL your child is learning), just as much as you need to make Autism Remediation work possible.

At 6:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For what it is worth, ABA did NOT work with my son. RDI has! Medication has only given us side effects!! Thank you for your post, Harvest Mom. I enjoy your blog. I do everything except for the wow, so thanks, I'll give that a try. I am doing better at NOT saying "good job." It's been a HARD habit to break. Sincerely, Diane

At 7:14 AM, Anonymous kyra said...

the lambs are so cute!

i'm printing this out and giving it to dave. he doesn't quite *get* the whole thing about 'good job', so when fluffy gets dressed on his own, he's all, good job! and i'm wow! you got dressed so fast! ah well. he's on board with the RDI and the Enki. he'll get there...

At 8:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also gave this posting to my husband b/c I thought it was so well written and made sense. It also helps give ideas for declarative language when your child has accomplished something.



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