The child rearing program called Systematic Training for Effective Parenting teaches parents to help their children internalize values and make choices accordingly rather than depending on external forces such as rebuke, rules, and laws.
What this means is that, for example, a child learns to treat others with kindness out of respect (internal value) rather than because s/he will get in trouble with the teacher (external force). People who are incarcerated are so because they failed to internalize and personalize values.
One of the tools that a parent or teacher has to teach a child this is encouragement rather than praise. Encouragement teaches a child to think about what is personally motivating and pleasurable about an activity.
“What did you like about those colors that you used in that picture?” a parent might say. Or, “I’ll bet that made you feel good to share your toy with your friend.” These comments cause a child to learn to think about and rely on personal values and pleasure.
Encouragement is very portable, and it travels with you wherever you go. It’s your own private voice saying, “It’s fulfilling to be creative or kind or involved or cooperative.”
Praise, by contrast, is like a salt-lick on a rancher’s pasture. The cows have to come to the lick in order to get what they want. Praise is totally dependent on the approval of another person. So the other person must derive pleasure or inspiration or agreement with a deed or a creation in order to say, “Atta boy.”
Jesus’ words make particularly good sense in regard to praise. He said, “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what is what their ancestors did to false prophets,” Luke 6:26.
He knew that praise was external and subjective. Praise is colored by a person’s prejudices, mood at the time, or agenda. Praise may be offered one moment and withdrawn the next. Praise is never consistent. It is hot one day, cold the next. And praise is like cocaine in its addictive power.
Wise parents know that children raised with encouragement learn to act on the basis of personal conviction and fulfillment and not on the approval of others. This is a particularly good skill to have when you have to swim against the tide of public opinion or when you have to make a decision that requires strength of character. Praise will let you down at such times.
Praise is also a chameleon that changes color depending on who is dispensing it. This is not beneficial to a person who wants to act with integrity and consistency.
Like a cookie, a little praise once-in-a-while is okay. But when you make a steady diet of it, you soon become flabby in the personal convictions. Eat sparingly.