(This piece appeared in slightly different form in my book “Teaching Creativity.”)
As teachers, we often assume that praise will boost children’s self-esteem and confidence. And for encouraging appropriate behavior, or reinforcing tasks like learning to tie shoes, praise can be a helpful teaching tool.
But when it comes to developing children’s creativity, praise can be a tricky thing. As Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, states, praise “motivates children to get (more) praise… often at the expense of commitment to whatever they were doing that prompted the praise… They become less likely to take risks – a prerequisite for creativity – once they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming (Kohn 2001).” Praise is a form of evaluation, and even positive evaluation is an external motivation. True motivation, for creative thinking or anything else, is internal – it comes from a mind filled with questions and a heart filled with feelings.
Also, even young children know that not every idea they come up with is great. Some ideas are just okay and some aren’t very good. So if someone says “Great!” to every idea they offer, they’re going to a) distrust that person or b) distrust themselves (are all my ideas that great? Or maybe they’re all bad and she’s just trying to be nice?) or c) conclude that the person saying “Great!” isn’t really listening to them (which is often the case). When children (or grown-ups, for that matter) feel un-listened to, eventually they stop offering ideas.
Here’s the thing about praise: it’s too easy. It takes much less effort to say “Great! Good job! Terrific! Wonderful!” than to really pay attention to somebody. (P.S. – children know this.)
Our goal is to keep children thinking creatively, to help them have lots of ideas and feel free to express those ideas. So we need to respond to those ideas in a way that shows our attention and our interest.
Instead of jumping in with a verbal response, take time to look, read, or listen – to consider the child’s idea.
Ask questions or share comments that lead to more reflection and discussion, such as:
“How did you get the idea for this?”
“I see a lot of… (purple, lines, birds, whatever).”
“How long did it take you to do this? Was it difficult?”
“I’m curious about this part… Could you tell me more about it?”
“This makes me feel like… (I’m at a party, I’m at the beach, I’m in the jungle, etc.)”
“It’s very… (peaceful, scary, funny, sad, bright, mysterious, etc.)”
My favorite – “Thank you for sharing this with me. I love to (hear your ideas, see your artwork, read your stories).