Grace based parenting in the real world

Based on the responses I got from my recent post on Graced Based Libertarianism, it was clear that many of us long for real examples of exactly what grace responses to our children look like. I found a secular article that made me think. Of course, we’re coming from entirely different beliefs on the nature of our children. Yet, I think there is some helpful analysis here. His criticism of manipulative praise gives insight into manipulative punishment as well. His point is that punishment and reward/praise are opposite expressions of the same philosophy. He encourages an entirely different philosophy. The main place I diverge from him is that I need my children to understand what God says is good, so I definitely will be making moral declarations about things to them. But with that distinction in place, his other ideas are worthwhile.

Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” by Alfie Kohn

1. Manipulating children.

Suppose you offer a verbal reward to reinforce the behavior of a two-year-old who eats without spilling, or a five-year-old who cleans up her art supplies. Who benefits from this? Is it possible that telling kids they’ve done a good job may have less to do with their emotional needs than with our convenience?

Rheta DeVries, a professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa, refers to this as “sugar-coated control.” Very much like tangible rewards – or, for that matter, punishments – it’s a way of doing something to children to get them to comply with our wishes. It may be effective at producing this result (at least for a while), but it’s very different from working with kids – for example, by engaging them in conversation about what makes a classroom (or family) function smoothly, or how other people are affected by what we have done — or failed to do. The latter approach is not only more respectful but more likely to help kids become thoughtful people. …

2. Creating praise junkies.

… Mary Budd Rowe, a researcher at the University of Florida, discovered that students who were praised lavishly by their teachers were more tentative in their responses, more apt to answer in a questioning tone of voice (“Um, seven?”). They tended to back off from an idea they had proposed as soon as an adult disagreed with them. And they were less likely to persist with difficult tasks or share their ideas with other students.

In short, “Good job!” doesn’t reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure. It may even create a vicious circle such that the more we slather on the praise, the more kids seem to need it, so we praise them some more. Sadly, some of these kids will grow into adults who continue to need someone else to pat them on the head and tell them whether what they did was OK. Surely this is not what we want for our daughters and sons.

3. Stealing a child’s pleasure.

… To be sure, there are times when our evaluations are appropriate and our guidance is necessary — especially with toddlers and preschoolers. But a constant stream of value judgments is neither necessary nor useful for children’s development. Unfortunately, we may not have realized that “Good job!” is just as much an evaluation as “Bad job!” The most notable feature of a positive judgment isn’t that it’s positive, but that it’s a judgment. And people, including kids, don’t like being judged.

4. Losing interest.

… an impressive body of scientific research has shown that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Now the point isn’t to draw, to read, to think, to create – the point is to get the goody, whether it’s an ice cream, a sticker, or a “Good job!”

In a troubling study conducted by Joan Grusec at the University of Toronto, young children who were frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they had heard “Good sharing!” or “I’m so proud of you for helping,” they became a little less interested in sharing or helping. Those actions came to be seen not as something valuable in their own right but as something they had to do to get that reaction again from an adult. Generosity became a means to an end.

Does praise motivate kids? Sure. It motivates kids to get praise. Alas, that’s often at the expense of commitment to whatever they were doing that prompted the praise.

5. Reducing achievement.

… Researchers keep finding that kids who are praised for doing well at a creative task tend to stumble at the next task – and they don’t do as well as children who weren’t praised to begin with.

Why does this happen? Partly because the praise creates pressure to “keep up the good work” that gets in the way of doing so. Partly because their interest in what they’re doing may have declined. Partly because they become less likely to take risks – a prerequisite for creativity – once they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming.

More generally, “Good job!” is a remnant of an approach to psychology that reduces all of human life to behaviors that can be seen and measured. Unfortunately, this ignores the thoughts, feelings, and values that lie behind behaviors. For example, a child may share a snack with a friend as a way of attracting praise, or as a way of making sure the other child has enough to eat. Praise for sharing ignores these different motives. Worse, it actually promotes the less desirable motive by making children more likely to fish for praise in the future. …

This point, you’ll notice, is very different from a criticism that some people offer to the effect that we give kids too much approval, or give it too easily. They recommend that we become more miserly with our praise and demand that kids “earn” it. But the real problem isn’t that children expect to be praised for everything they do these days. It’s that we’re tempted to take shortcuts, to manipulate kids with rewards instead of explaining and helping them to develop needed skills and good values.

So what’s the alternative? That depends on the situation, but whatever we decide to say instead has to be offered in the context of genuine affection and love for who kids are rather than for what they’ve done. …

If a child is doing something that disturbs others, then sitting down with her later and asking, “What do you think we can do to solve this problem?” will likely be more effective than bribes or threats. It also helps a child learn how to solve problems and teaches that her ideas and feelings are important. Of course, this process takes time and talent, care and courage. Tossing off a “Good job!” when the child acts in the way we deem appropriate takes none of those things, which helps to explain why “doing to” strategies are a lot more popular than “working with” strategies.

And what can we say when kids just do something impressive? …

* Say what you saw. A simple, evaluation-free statement (“You put your shoes on by yourself” or even just “You did it”) tells your child that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback – not judgment – about what you noticed: “This mountain is huge!” “Boy, you sure used a lot of purple today!”

If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: “Look at Abigail’s face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack.” This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing.

This doesn’t mean that all compliments, all thank-you’s, all expressions of delight are harmful. We need to consider our motives for what we say (a genuine expression of enthusiasm is better than a desire to manipulate the child’s future behavior) as well as the actual effects of doing so. Are our reactions helping the child to … constantly look to us for approval? Are they helping her to become more excited about what she’s doing in its own right – or turning it into something she just wants to get through in order to receive a pat on the head.

Copyright © 2001 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author’s name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact page at

The big point that Kohn is making is similar to my argument in punishment v. discipline. Punishment is reactive and, frankly, easy. “You hit him? Ok, now I spank you.” “You took his toy? Fine, now I’m going to take your toy and put you in time out.” And, to be honest, I take the easy way out way too much. But Biblical discipline (i. e. training in righteousness) is hands on and takes time.

My boys are ages 4 and 6. I have only minimal experience putting this into practice (though I have much experience failing at it). But here is the guiding principle that is helping me to formulate my responses.

Be suspicious of the easy way out. Grace responses (when you choose discipleship over punishment) are not quick and easy. The one grace response that often does quickly help in our home is redirection or distraction—-distracting them from their sin. And I think this is a beautiful picture of what God does for us. He is so merciful to see us on the trajectory of sin and to rescue us from it by moving our attention or efforts somewhere else. That’s helpful when kids are heading toward sin but aren’t quite there yet – it’s making a way out much like God does for us.

But once sin has happened, I need to engage. I have to put down what I was doing, pray, think, and engage. “Son, why did you ruin your brother’s project? Look at his face. That made him really sad. Did you want to hurt his things? Were you trying to provoke him? Do you remember what God said is the most important thing? Yeah, loving God and loving others. Was it loving to tear your brother’s project? What do you need to do? Yeah, you need to ask him to forgive you. You need to ask how you can help him fix it. We need to pray that God would change your heart to love your brother.”

But even that paragraph is short and assumes a lot. There are other things that could be going on. I may need to explain to him what provoking means. Provoking is when you want someone’s attention and you do something mean or hurtful to get it. If you want your brother’s attention, try this instead (and then think with him through solutions when he wants someone’s attention). Maybe he wasn’t being unloving or provoking at all. Maybe he thought his brother’s project would look better if he drew all over it with markers (which is what happened to us yesterday). He wasn’t trying to destroy it. He was just insensitive and unaware of how his brother would receive his “improvements.” Maybe he needs support in thinking about how others will feel before he does something. I need to teach him about empathy. Or maybe it’s a situation that doesn’t demand any of that kind of intervention. As I prayed and thought about it, I realized it was something they could work out themselves. Finally, it may very well be that his heart really did hate his brother in that moment and I need to pray for him (because he’s too angry to pray himself) that God would change his heart.

In terms of character development, I am working on teaching my kids perseverance and endurance. Rather than simply saying “Good job” when they score a goal at soccer, I am trying to emphasize that they didn’t give up. “I saw that you were sad when that kid scored a goal, but you didn’t give up. You kept playing.” My son in particular gets very discouraged and wants to quit when he can’t accomplish something the first time he tries. So encouraging perseverance has been helpful with him. There’s no point in me saying, “You are so good at soccer.” Because, frankly, he’s not. And I don’t care if he is the best at soccer. But I do want him to learn to persevere.

My final thought in this mishmash of ideas is prompted by a line from Amazing Grace, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.” It’s not grace to ignore the sin. But it’s not grace to punish it either. Grace is this amazing third way. And wrestling daily with what this looks like with my kids has been amazingly productive in understanding it for myself. In short, there aren’t easy answers. There isn’t a simple 3 step outline for how to disciple your children in light of the gospel. It takes union with Christ, leaning into Him in prayer, and much self examination as a parent. But mostly, it just takes preaching the gospel to ourselves. As I grow in my understanding of gospel grace for myself, I grow in my understanding of God’s use of it with my children.

11 Responses to Grace based parenting in the real world

  1. Kath March 3, 2011 at 11:34 am #

    This is really thought provoking Wendy. Thanks.

  2. Beth W. March 3, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    Oh, thank you so much for posting this! I have a two year old and am trying to work through many of these issues, and this has greatly helped both my husband and I clarify some of our thoughts on grace-based parenting and think “better” about some issues.

  3. Sandi March 3, 2011 at 2:40 pm #

    Well said, it is SO much easier to punish then disciple. I see some of the (bad)fruits of this in my now 10 year old that we have to work through. This need to be right or feel a bit fearful. It is personality but also some grace-less parenting that thank God we have moved on from. Not perfectly but purposely. Now that I am parenting my third at 2 years old….I feel like I know way less about what I am doing then with my first LOL! His grace is sufficient.

    Thanks for sharing this, great stuff.

  4. Sarah Guild March 3, 2011 at 7:49 pm #

    Teaching our children about the Gospel involves life teaching about how lovingly they were created, their struggle with sin, their need for a Savior, and the Savior's ability to transform them. I pray like crazy about this, and I know that I will SCREW IT UP often. However, after much prayer here is an example of what this looked like for us in one situation:

    Getting ready to go somewhere is often a struggle with two young kids (2 and 4). The older one would diddle around and take forever to get ready while the young one started to lose it and scream. (thus making me feel like I would lose it) My voice would escalate as I asked the older over and over to get his shoes on. This was not a good solution, and certainly not gracious. The problem was deeper than just getting ready to go… I wanted my older child to begin to understand thoughtfulness of others and how his actions affected others. We started by explaining how all of the diddling made his little brother really tired and frustrated, etc. and that it was important to think about others before himself. I started by setting a timer to teach him what it would look like for him to get ready at a reasonable speed when asked to do so. Then, after he learned what it meant to move more quickly, I expected him to do it when asked so as to be thoughtful of his brother and of me.

    Of course, he didn't do it because he wanted to do his own thing. At that point, he knew how to move faster, he had it explained how it affected his brother, and the words meant nothing. He had no care for his thoughtlessness (sin). My job as his loving mother was to show him in a way he understood: a consequence that helped him understand. Then, we prayed that God would help us BOTH learn how to think of others because I ABSOLUTELY understand how hard that is and I don't do it well. Now, a reminder about thoughtfulness is all it takes for him to be ready most of the time. I would assert that this consequence was much more gracious than a thousand of my words.

    Agree? Disagree?

  5. Brandy @ Afterthoughts March 3, 2011 at 8:08 pm #

    I've read through your two posts on grace-based parenting, plus your discussion of the rod using Psalm 23 as a means of defining the term (I would highly suggest, by the way, reading Phillip Keller's A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 in which he explains that a shepherd's rod is a tool used to both protect the sheep from predators as well as discipline the wayward sheep…for his own protection, rather than as an attempt to injure him, which is why it is able to offer comfort).

    Here is where I am confused: do you mean that grace-based parenting involves no consequences of any kind when a child misbehaves?

    I totally agree with you that the Biblical approach takes wisdom, and that training in righteousness often means spending extra time finding out what is really going on and then responding correctly. But this post sounded like this is a grace which is consequence-free? Please explain. Perhaps I am misunderstanding you here.

  6. Wendy March 3, 2011 at 9:11 pm #

    Sarah, I have no criticism for how you handled that. It sounds thoughtful, prayerful, and like true discipleship. I often need consequences of some nature to get my kids' attention. The consequence is not punishment. But it becomes the conduit to getting their attention and focus so that they can hear me. I guess consequences are part of the “twas grace that taught my heart to fear” part.

    Brandy, does that help some?

  7. Brandy @ Afterthoughts March 3, 2011 at 10:47 pm #

    Wendy, yes that helps a lot! Thank you! I understand now that you are simply trying to distinguish punishment from consequences, not eliminating consequences altogether.

    By the way, I thought that the rest of your post was also fascinating. Charlotte Mason talks a lot about motivation for behavior in her works. In the end, she believed that a child's education could be accomplished without grades or praise or threats or whatever because they could learn to love knowledge and ideas for their own sake. I have found this to be true in our home, and also observed that once a child begins to perform for a grade, they begin to care less about gaining knowledge. Your section on praise junkies resonated with that, I think.

  8. MelB March 4, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

    Hey, interesting post. I have found this to be a truly American thing – the Good Job phraseology. I have nieces (6,10) who live in Atlanta and was higly amused when they came out here (Cape Town) and said Good Job to my 3 yr old at any given opportunity. 🙂

    Postive reinforcement is crucial but can lose its gloss if it becomes trite.

  9. Anonymous March 4, 2011 at 3:04 pm #

    Especially appreciated your last paragraph..thanks…From infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim3:15-17). Let My teaching fall like rain and my Words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants. Take to heart all the Words declared to you so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the Words of this law. 47 They are not just idle Words for you,they are your life (Deut 32:2,46-47)

  10. Anonymous March 8, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    ps, don't forget to sing this to your kids
    and you)today.

  11. L March 9, 2011 at 8:42 am #

    This is so so helpful. I have been struggling with a lot of these things – I too was raised in Christian fundamentalism and God has been so gracious to grow my understanding of grace over the last couple of years. We have a three year old girl, and I think parenting is one of the places where a person's understanding (or lack thereof) of Grace is most apparent. I so desire to be a grace-filled parent and am so painfully aware of how ungraceful I often am, constantly floundering as a sahm. This has given me much to think about and ideas for further study.