“Where’s My Pizza Party?” (Should We be Praising Kids for Every Little thing They Do?)

Posted January 30, 2009 by

A couple of years ago, I spent a great part of a school year substituting in sixth-grade classrooms. In our district, this is the first year of middle school. To this day, I’ve never visited the elementary schools from where these students come. But I can guess that they’re full of teachers with bags of candy, gold stars, little (or big) charts with smiley stickers, and pizza parties for the class that gathers the largest number of cans for the food drive. I can guess that these teachers are really worried about making these kids all feel “good” about themselves.

I assume that’s true because something I noticed right off was the constant need the kids had for what I can only call “validation.” I had little time left to really teach the slower kids much, because I was so busy with the bright kids who would raise their hands. I’d walk to their desk. Here’s the exchange that would typically follow:

“Ms. V, is this right?”
“Ms. V, do you like it?”
“Ms. V, is this what you want?”

“Yes, Jessica. Yes, Matthew, looks good.” Followed by the fallen faces of Jessica and Matthew. Apparently I’m not as effusive as the teachers they’re used to.

Now, my suspicion — borne out by subsequent interactions with these kids — is that the Jessicas and the Matthews KNOW they’re doing it correctly. After all, they’ve had straight-As since first grade, along with $5 (or $50) for every one, and a trip to Blockbuster or Dairy Queen on report card night. So, they’re pretty confident that they’re “getting it.” So what’s the point of the exchange? Part of me thinks they’re just showing off. But another part of me thinks that they haven’t learned to evaluate themselves, give themselves a little — a LITTLE — internal pat on the back, and then MOVE ON to the next step or project.

In other words, “Where’s my pizza party?”

These same kids, lacking in what I can only call “internal resources,” are the first ones to ask, at the (always swift, because there might be a prize for being first!) completion of an assignment, “What do I do next?” Well … I told you what to do next. And if I didn’t, well, for cryin’ out loud, get out a book you’re reading (you ARE carrying a recreational book in that backpack, aren’t you?) or read from the next chapter in our text, or work on homework from another class, or write a letter in longhand (imagine!) to your grandmother, or meditate, or, or…!

I love little children, and a lot of my friends have them. Go to a park for an afternoon and just listen in.

Count the number of times you hear, “Good job!”

For heaven’s sake, a kid slides down the slide and giggles and the mom says, “Good job!”
“Way to go!”
“You did it!”
Well, of COURSE the kid did it; it’s FUN! That’s why you brought him!

This issue — constant praise and reward and gratification for doing WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO DO or what you would NATURALLY do doesn’t just rear its ugly head with children. Every time I read about some big, fancy charity ball or other such event in the society pages, I wonder: What if all those rich people took all the money they spent on tickets, tuxes, ball gowns, hair stylists, catering, etc., for the big event designed to draw attention to some worthy cause, and just GAVE IT TO THE CAUSE? But no, they need the grown-up equivalent of the pizza party to make all that giving worth the trouble, when generosity is supposed to be its own reward, and IS — WHEN WE LET IT! I mean, after all, this kind of thing is TAX-DEDUCTIBLE for these people, and they STILL want the pizza party!

What if we told the kids who win the food drive contest: We’re going to take the money we were going to spend on the pizza party, and donate it to the food bank? What IF? What if we told them, BEFORE the food drive started, that there’s not going to be a reward or party at all, just “bragging rights.” That they’ll just have to be happy knowing that they raised food for the hungry? What IF?

I asked my son once: Has a cop ever pulled me over and given me a citation for my excellent driving? Told me what a great job I was doing? No. My reward is that I get to avoid an accident. I get to enjoy LESS of an INCREASE in my insurance costs. That’s it. No pizza party.

I was given the “Outstanding Flight Attendant” award one year at my flight base. (For those of you who don’t know, I’m a flight attendant and former journalist in addition to being a substitute teacher!) So I’ve been on the receiving end of this kind of thing. I’m not going to kid you: I LOVED being given that award, especially in 2001, even though the events of that year meant that the tangible benefits (monetary worth) were completely absent. It meant something to me. I’d organized a blood drive after 9/11, found places for stranded pilots and flight attendants to sleep that week, gotten a lot of nice letters from passengers. But I didn’t do it because I thought I would get that award. I did that stuff because I WANTED to, because it felt not just good but NECESSARY, and because I was taught by parents, and Girl Scout leaders, and teachers, that doing good was what I, and everyone else,  was SUPPOSED to do, and not because someone was going to swoop down and pin a gold star on me. I put the little trophy in my living room, next to my husband’s teaching awards, because I want our son to know that we value doing a good job and that being recognized by our bosses for it MATTERS. That’s why I read him good letters I get from passengers; he deserves to know that the time I spend away from him is spent DOING MY BEST for my employer and for my employer’s customers.

But here’s the kicker: The real reason I was finally given that award, after years of work and being considered several times, was that my son didn’t get sick that year, and my attendance had, subsequently, been perfect. And perfect attendance is the starting point for evaluating candidates for the award, no matter what other wonderful things they’ve done.

In other words, just SHOWING UP for work you get PAID to do is the basis for earning it!

So where do you stand? Do you think that the economic meltdown will have, among other happy side-effects, the result that people will realize that not every good action deserves a tangible reward? Or, do you believe that every good action DOES deserve a tangible reward?


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  1. FPIORITA (Edit) Report

    How does the word “Over-Praising” even exist in the vocabulary of educated adults? Praising children for a mundane task will not lead to an over indulgent, lazy, or reward seeking child. The comments I have read only support what I believe to be true in our society and that is many folks “dumb down” our children and perceive that children are incapable of handling any task, compliment, or challenge because they are perceived and talked about as if they are dumb.
    Children are bombarded daily with unrealistic images of beauty, body image, and material wealth. They see horrific images in the news of illnesses, earthquakes, war, and are confronted daily with other realities and horrors of the world. Reassuring children that they are on track, demonstrated sportsmanship, adhering to norms, and other expected behaviors not only helps with self-esteem, but further socializes children to be conscientious of expected norms in our culture. Even prisoners get “good time” for doing what is expected. Be aware that children who are confrontational, spoiled, and demonstrate poor behaviors are typically the result of bad parenting that encourages self gratifying behaviors, and parental attitudes that under appreciates their children. I worry that if we don’t praise our children for socially accepted behaviors they will grow to be cynical adults who will not take the time to praise a child for all the beautiful things children do and say as they learn and grow. Praise strengthens positive behaviors that we should all want to reinforce. I have worked with felons for much of my career. I have never been in one courtroom or prison to hear the following, “The Defendant was praised too much
    as a child.” It is always the opposite which lands an innocent child to seek self gratifying or sociopathic behaviors. Of course, landing in prison will not always be the result. Under-praised children could grow up to be adults that just posts mean and unsupported blogs about why we should not praise kids because they were never appreciated when they were children…And the cycle goes on.
    Excuse me while I praise my kids for just being who they are.

  2. SunsetFlamingo (Edit) Report

    I really like this article. I totally believe in praising my kids often — when it is due. I don’t, however, believe kids should be overly praised, as that creates a sense of entitlement and sets them up for disappointment and failure their entire lives. “I went to work today. Where’s my pizza party?” “I did laundry so that my family doesn’t have to wear dirty, wrinkled clothing. Where’s my pizza party?” “I didn’t hit anyone today when I was angry. Where’s my pizza party?” “I didn’t cheat on my wife when I was feeling unhappy in my marriage. Where’s my pizza party?” I mean, seriously!!! We need to teach our children (also by example) that we do things because it’s necessary, or because it’s the right thing to do, and that is the reward! That is enough! I say we find things every day in our children that they deserve praise for, and praise them appropriately. Otherwise, they will put minimal effort into everything unless there is something in it for them! Isn’t that furthering the “If it feels good, do it; if it doesn’t, you don’t have to anything you don’t WANT to do” society that we live in?

  3. tntbes (Edit) Report

    We have a similar issue with my 16 year old stepson. He wants constant validation, but puts very little effort into anything. The only expectations we have are that he clean up after himself and do his school work. He has no chores and doesn’t have a summer job. He has not finished the classes he agreed to take last year and is suppossed to be finishing them over the summer. He’s done some, but then decided it wasn’t worth finishing the rest. My husband adopted him when he was eight and he was going to spend some time with his biological dad’s family with the requirement that he finish his school work 1st. He’s worked on it maybe 2 or 3 days over the course of the summer. He says we don’t praise him enough and only give him negative comments. We do praise him whenever he does something helpful or does a good job of something, but it feels like praising him for minimal effort is kind of dishonest. Do I praise him for doing his own dishes when there’s still food left on them? I have tried really hard not to make negative comments because I know that hearing negatives constantly is not healthy, but the problem with this is that if we don’t draw attention to his behavior it increases, more food left on the dishes, more inconsiderate behavior like eating entire packages of food that were meant for the whole family. I really try but it seems like I can only keep quiet about this stuff for so long before blowing up, and I know that doesn’t help matters. I think the hardest thing for me is how rude he is to his sister (not my daughter biologically, but my husband’s, I’m step to both) She is 8 and tries hard to keep the peace, I don’t want her growing up thinking she has to be the victim in her relationships. If she teases him or tries to annoy him I call her on it but that doesn’t happen that often, while he belittles her at every opportunity. I understand that he has had a hard time, bith his parents are addicts, but their mother’s drug use has effected her too. When she has tried to take her anger out on other kids I have sat her down and said, “It’s OK to be angry, I understand that you are, but you don’t have the right to hurt others just because you’re feeling bad. Everyone has hard times and problems, you don’t know what your friends may be going through, it may be that their lives are just as tough as yours. If you are sad and need to be alone it’s OK and if you want to talk about it I’m here, but you will treat others with respect.” This worked really well with her, (meaning she still gets sad of course but understands how to deal appropriately with these feelings) but not so the older one. Granted he has been shuffled around more, but though he is adopted, in our home, he has been offered all the same opportunities she has, more actually as is age appropriate.

    So anyway the other day he sat down, at our urging, to take a test that he should have done months ago and very rudely told her she’d have to be quiet, she’s been playing with the cat. So without argument she stopped what she was doing and sat down to practice at her keyboard with her headphones on, and he still complained. I couldn’t hear anything that possibly could have interfered with taking a test. This from a kid who plays his ipod with headphones so loud it disturbs everyone else in the car and when asked to turn it down either refuses or complies and turns it right back up again. Just one of the many anoyances I put up with to avoid being negative. He does have ADHD, but it seemed more to me that he was simply preventing her from doing what she wanted just because he wasn’t able to do what he wanted. Their dad took his side, which he often does because Nick will make everyone miserable anytime he doesn’t get his way and it’s easier to give in. Chloe knew she was being treated unfairly and went off to cry, Nick blew through his test in 5 minutes skipping every other question because he hadn’t bothered to read the material and I then lost it. I guess I just feel like he uses his tough early life and ADHD to get everyone to make accomodations for him to the degree that we are all putting more effort into his life than he is. I also think this is not helpful to him because I doubt he will get far using these excuses with an employer. So I called him a spoiled brat, which also wasn’t helpful albeit true, and now he’s staying out all night and not speaking to anyone. I know I shouldn’t have said that but how much do we all have to accomodate him? And how do I not loose my temper? While on the one hand I have compassion for him, on the other I am totally and completely fed up.

  4. Kris (Edit) Report

    OHHH YOU ARE SOOOO RIGHT! My kids rarely get the awards at school, but we have to sit through the patheticly ridiculous award ceremony where the SAME KIDS get the awards EVERY YEAR! My gosh, aren’t the straight As on your report card enough? Anyhow, my relative, who by the way is a teacher and has several children wanted to have a family award ceremony one year where every child would receive an award for their “special” quality. The basis for this plan was because some of the children did not receive awards at school?!?! GIVE ME A BREAK! I told her on no uncertain terms that we would not participate. My kids do not need pity awards. They have every opportunity to win the awards at school if they just do the work. Obviously the “awards” are not that important to them and I agree. They are overkill and the crescendo of this syrupy sweet, stroke the ego society we live in! UGH!

  5. Jan in AZ (Edit) Report

    I’m thinking of my son’s first summer baseball team experience. When the season was nearly over, the coach took orders from everyone who wanted to buy their child a trophy. I was the only parent on the team who refused to buy a trophy. I discussed this with my son beforehand, explaining that I thought a trophy needed to be earned, and that it took away from the value of a trophy if people just went out and bought them. I also explained that if he wanted one as a memento of his first team, not as a “trophy” per se, but just for fun and for the memory, I would still honestly be happy to buy him one. It could be a fun memento. He thought about it, and said that he didn’t care about it.
    Then this other parent–who knew how I felt about it!–goes and orders one for my son anyway because he decided that my son needed it despite my feelings! I was so irritated!!!
    Now for the kicker. It is one of my son’s prized posessions. He knows it isn’t a “real” trophy, and doesn’t try to even pretend that it is, but he is terribly proud of this thing that represents his place on his team. They played well, and he was part of that. It is a tangible reminder that he was an important part of something good.
    I still don’t believe in excessive rewards, but I have decided to err on the side of praise. Big praise for big things, but also little praise for little things. It sends my son the message that I “see” him all the time, and not just when he does big stuff.

  6. toneska (Edit) Report

    I am a grandmother of 10, a mother of 3, a step-mom of 3. At 62 I watch, and am concerned with, what I call “the trophy mentality”. Praise for doing a great job, for pitching in when not asked, for working hard to achieve a good grade or a spot on the football team is terrific and needed. Praise for merely existing and showing up when required is not helpful. Life is joyful. Life is also tough. I fear that in this culture of telling our kids that they are ALWAYS The Best at everything they do and touch we are teaching them to lie to themselves. In doing so, they will never be able, as adults, to tackle the hard work of adjusting themselves to situations, environments, other people, etc. because they end up seeing themselves through the glass blindly. The MOST powerful lesson my old dad taught me was on the ice skating rink when I was about 4 years old. I fell and whined. Instead of telling me that I was pretty, or great, or cut or, or, or he looked down at me and said: “get up”. He did NOT offer any help or praise. I learned in that moment that it was my job to get up…again and again if necessary. When we overpraise our kids, they don’t ever get to learn and then enjoy the satisfaction of “getting up…again.”

  7. rwb (Edit) Report

    I see truth in most of the comments made. An added piece of information is that research has demonstrated that we (adults and kids) need five positives for every negative we receive. These positives can come from an adult, a peer or from ourselves. Of course as our kids grow up, we must be in our teacher role helping our children to learning self-monitoring and self-reinforcement skills.

  8. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor (Edit) Report

    I have to agree with EAM Scouter — moderation in all things. One of my best friends was raised with no rewards or praise at all, and suffered from really poor self-esteem for years as a result. So I do think *some* praise is in order.

    I read an interesting article a few years ago about how we need to change the focus of our compliments. Instead of a blanket, “You’re great!” or “Good job,” the researchers found that it was much more effective to comment on the work or ideas the kids had. So instead of “good job,” it would be, “wow, you really worked hard on that. I like how used your own idea to create that (fill in the blank).” So you’re taking note of something they really have accomplished on their own, and encouraging them to keep trying new ideas, working hard, etc. Just some food for thought. Here’s a link to the article I was mentioning:


  9. EAM Scouter (Edit) Report

    Every youth organization in the past 20 years has gone overboard with this reward system. As a boy scout leader I have run ins with parents that think this way. They are quick to do all the work and provide more than the essentials for our outings. They would rather break the rules and reward scouts even if they haven’t erarned advancment or recognition. I believe kids know when they did good and don’t need the “over the top” recognition. To much attention and over the top rewards also leades to unrealistic high expectations as they get older, and as young adults going into the real world situations. As the old saying goes “everything in moderation”.

  10. cjwiz (Edit) Report

    I feel it’s important to give our kids encouraging words and praise for a job well done. I also feel it’s important that kids should not get a something for everything they do or that things that are expected of them ex. homework, chores. It’s nice to be appreciated but sometimes I agree parent, and teachers can go a little to far.

  11. awstevens (Edit) Report

    I do not think it is harmful to give verbal praises to children when they have done something worthy of it. I know that growing up I liked to be acknowledged for my hard work and to know that it was appreciated by someone. I will be 20 in March and I still feel good about myself when someone compliments something I have done. I also see the negative effects of too much praise though. It gets to a point where the individual will expect some sort of recognition for everything they do. I have seen myself in this situation also. My mom likes to volunteer my best friend and I for projects to take on at our church when we are home from college. This past December while we were doing things, I found myself wishing that people realized how much we did to help out instead of just being glad that I was able to help with the projects at the church. I think that in moderation, the good job praise and achnowledgements are fine, its when someone goes too far and starts praising their child for doing an everyday thing that is to be expected of them.

  12. Laguna (Edit) Report

    Hey..I am in a class dealing with development of children and I would like some insite to that through a parents eyes. I do agree that children should be rewarded for their good work, but to a certain extent. Not every good action derserves a praise or reward. I believe children need to learn that with something they put their all into then they can get that pat on the back someone was talking about. Hopefully, their internal confidence with themseleves will help children know they did a good job, but the positive answer for our parents never hurt. Keeping a positive outlook for children while their are young in my thought will help them stay positive as they get older.

  13. Annita Woz (Edit) Report

    i think all the good jobs/nice works are parents practicing. It really takes work to train ourselves to respond to the positive when our society is used to pointing out the negative. Agreed that kids need to learn to find the reward in the learning and intangible benefits of doing the right thing and meeting expectations. One parent i know teaches her kids to reach over their shoulder and pat themselves on the back and say, “yaay me.” She had read somewhere that it isn’t important to teach kids to do things for you but to teach them to take pride in their own work and accomplishments. I’m now imagining a scene on a playground somewhere with parents repeating positive words in a yoga trance while their kids are patting themsevels on the back so much that they can’t get all the way across the monkey bars!

    Balance. Balance. Balance.



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