Feedback v. Reinforcement–It’s Important!


If I read one more “news” article about not praising children on the premise that it will make them lazy, my head might explode! Yes, this blog today is a rant–albeit, an informed rant, from a former educator’s standpoint, but a rant still the same. So some of my words might be shocking. My ideas might not be liked–beware.

Momma is on a rampage!

But, it is for a good reason. Every article that cautions “praising” children inevitably cites the research from Stanford University. I’ve already written a blog, Ignore the Research, Praise the Child, in which I refuted the study as a means for these anti-praise articles.

Let me start by recapping the study, to refresh the mind as to why it holds no premise as reference for these anti-praise bandwagon psychologists–media included.

The study, based out of Stanford University, tried to claim that teachers who give meaningless praise create students who, in essence, rest on their laurels. They brought in a group of students and gave them a set of formulaic equations to complete. In the first stage, regardless of the students’ ability, the children were told they scored an eighty percent on their answers. They were then praised, with the emphasis that they must be “so smart” to have scored so high on these advanced problems, so would they like to continue to the next set of problems?

Let’s stop here. Think about the first part of the study for a second. Each child sat down, completed a set of problems, and then heard he was smart. Think about the definition of the word “smart” for a second. Quick-witted, intelligent, clever, bright, shrewd, astute. These problems were advanced, above grade level. The student is feeling pretty good about this fact, being shrewd, deductive, and intelligent–wouldn’t you?
I would.

In essence, though, it was a fabrication of facts. These students were given praise, in the form of positive feedback, but it was erroneous, and irrelevant to the problems at hand. The children were given false feedback; they were willfully misled into believing they had performed well on a set of problems that were never graded.

The opposite of positive feedback is what?

Negative feedback.

Which moves me toward the second part of the study. During phase two, the same children were given a second set of problems. After completing the equations, again–regardless of actual answers–the students were told they performed poorly. The researcher told each child that she hadn’t performed as well as she had previously, therefore she must not be as smart as the researcher first assumed, … but would she like to continue on with the next set of problems?

Sneaky bastard.

Yes, I said it. The second time around, each child was given criticism–negative feedback. Again, still false feedback, because the problems were never actually scored. The whole scenario was a farce to see how children respond when they are praised, and how they respond when they are criticized.

Hmmm … Stanford had to complete a study to know that answer?

Tell a child he’s dumb, tell him he’s not as smart as was first assumed … break him down, then ask him to continue. There was no teaching here, because there was no learning. It wasn’t even an accurate assessment–because assessing a child assumes that you’re finding an actual basis of where the child is at in the learning process, at that moment in time.

The premise was behavior analysis, but it failed. And in this Mommy’s mind, it failed miserably. And yet, it was motivation for Stanford, psychology today, mass media, and even PARENTS to jump on the anti-praise bandwagon, blasting the idea that praise serves only to promote dependency, and laziness.

Therefore, in summary, if you tell a child she’s smart, and she learns she’s not as smart as she believes, she immediately gives up.


Give me a second, I’m banging my head on the desk.

But there was a third phase that was missed by psychology today, and glossed over by the study itself. The children, after receiving this browbeating negative feedback, had their morale lifted. They returned to class once again knowing their worth.

Anyone catch the implication?

Yup. The kids were praised, told they were bright, that it was all a silly game, and sent back to class. Damn that praise and it’s uplifting, feel-good ability.

Now, here’s where people are shifting this praise study. It has morphed from the classroom setting into every aspect of parenting. I hear parents all the time claiming they shouldn’t help their child, that their discipline techniques and harsh consequences aren’t working, but they refuse give their kid praise, because it keeps the child from becoming independent.


There is a blogger out there who even claims her child should be allowed to fall off a ladder in order to learn how to climb it, and anyone who dares to help her child is aiding in her child’s future laziness. Help only enables her child to seek out praise, constantly seek help, and inevitably become a dependent, sniveling mess, in all aspects of life.

Um, no.

What’s going to happen is, that child is going to break an arm, and the ER doc is going to ask why a toddler’s mother was sitting twenty feet away from said ladder.

… Just saying.

After my first blog on the study itself, this idea of not praising continued to eat at me. At least it did, until this morning, when I finally realized what, exactly, is being confused. It’s not feedback that’s being confused, it’s the idea of positive and negative reinforcement. Even the best of educator’s get confused about that aspect of discipline in the classroom setting. But, that is what reinforcement is: a form of discipline.

It is not praise.

Let me say that again: reinforcement is not praise. It’s discipline. It is behavior modification. There is a fine distinction between positive and negative reinforcement, and positive feedback. Reinforcement focuses solely on behaviors the parent, or teacher, desires to have repeated.

Let me take a moment to outline some examples.

Positive Feedback–praise:

“Great job, Son Son! That picture is very pretty! Look how well you drew that monster! I like the shape of his eyeballs. Green is a very nice color for a monster.”


“Nice job on that paper! A.”

Positive feedback is blanket praise. It serves as a feel good, as a source of pride, and as a source of accomplishment. Nothing about praise specifies a behavior that needs to change. No learning, or teaching, occurs.

Negative Feedback–critique:

“No, sir! You do not poke the dog with a stick! Was that a red choice, or a green choice? Yes, a red choice. What color choices do you make? Right, green. This is your warning.”


“Well, that’s not exactly how to draw a ‘d,’ let’s try again. It’s a line, with a circle on the left side, but the circle does not go all the way to the top.”

Negative feedback is constructive criticism. It tells the child what he did wrong. Unfortunately, this is the fallback for most people (so I don’t know why praise is so heavily negated). Most teachers, and parents, focus on the aspects that the child is doing wrong. If a child hears 80% negative feedback throughout the day, and the parent believes in not giving any form of positive attribute … oh, dear Lord.

That poor child.

Positive Reinforcement–desiring a positive behavior to be repeated, or enforcing the idea of a desired behavior.
“That paper was very well written. I like the detail you put into the setting, and the description of the character. I’m excited to read your papers this year.”


“If you clean up your toys, you’ll get a sticker. If you get five stickers, you get to choose something from this toy bin.”

Positive reinforcement allows the teacher, or parent, to tell the child what specific behavior they liked, and what is expected, while teaching them to continue those behaviors independently once the reward is removed. It is not blanket praise, it is specific to the desired behavior that is to be enforced, or rewarded.

Negative Reinforcement–the removal of an item from the child’s environment in order to get a certain behavior to occur.

“Okay, Son Son, I know you don’t like corn. If you take two more bites of corn, you can be finished with dinner.”


“You didn’t turn in your homework, that is an incomplete grade.”

Negative reinforcement is not a punishment. This is where most people get confused. It’s the idea that by removing a negative stimulus, over time, positive behavior will occur more frequently. The child will learn to finish dinner in order to get up from the table, or turn in homework more frequently, in order to receive good grades.

Reinforcement is where psychology, and bandwagon media, seems to get confused. Telling a child, “I like the way you behaved in the store,” might sound like praise to an outsider, when in fact it might be the very behavior the parent has been working on for the past month. Saying to a child, “Thank you for listening to Mommy, I really liked how you washed your hands the first time I asked,” is not a form a praise. It’s a form of behavior modification. The parent is telling the child that they want to see that behavior performed again.

What’s the best way of assuring that?

Positive reinforcement.

Now back to the feedback part. Remember the first time your baby smiled? The first time he looked at you, … I mean really looked? Remember the first time she stood up, and that first, weeble-wobbly step? Remember his first word?
I can tell you what you didn’t say.

You didn’t say, “I really like the way you stood.”

You didn’t say, “Oh, it was just a smile. If I praise that, my child will turn into a sniveling, dependent person who can’t wipe his own butt.”

No, no you didn’t.

You said, “OH MY GOSH!!! You SMILED at me! Smile for Mommy again! Where’s that pretty smile? Give me that smile! You SMILED!!! You’re my beautiful, pretty, wonderfully fantastic baby!”

Why then, should we stop praise when the firsts get more monumental? The first time they draw what resembles a human person? The first time they recognize the letter A? The first time they count in perfect one-to-one ratio? The first time they legibly spell their name?

… The first time they successfully climb a ladder?

That’s not creating a dependent child, it’s celebrating the life that you chose to bring into this world. A life that is loved, cherished, and nurtured.

So give the praise; give the reinforcement. Be your child’s cheerleader.

They have their whole lives to hear from every outsider in the world how miserably they fail at life. Let the other people tell them that. Let it not come from you.

You’re the only parent they have–be a good one.

No comments posted on February 2, 2014 in Opinions, Winging It, Mom Style

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