Caregivers are often encouraged to praise children to reduce externalizing behavior. Although several theoretical perspectives suggest that praise works (e.g., praise reinforces positive behavior), others suggest it may not (e.g., children dismiss praise or experience it as controlling). This longitudinal-observational study examined whether (a) caregivers’ praise and children’s externalizing behavior were related; (b) an evidence-based parenting program increased caregivers’ praise; (c) and increasing praise reduced children’s externalizing behavior. Participants (387 caregiver-child dyads) were randomly assigned to a 14-session parenting program (aiming to improve parenting behavior, partly via praise) or a control group. Children (aged 4–8 years, 45% girls) scored at or above the 75th percentile on externalizing behavior problems. Caregivers (91% Caucasian, 85% born in the Netherlands, 50.5% highly educated) were mostly mothers (91%). At baseline, postintervention, and follow-up, we assessed caregivers’ labeled and unlabeled praise via in-home observations, and children’s externalizing behavior via caregiver-reports and observations. At baseline, caregivers’ unlabeled praise was related to more (rather than less) externalizing behavior. The parenting program successfully increased praise and reduced caregiver-reported (but not observed) externalizing behavior; importantly, however, praise did not mediate the program’s effect on caregiver-reported externalizing behavior. Although the program did not directly reduce observed externalizing behavior, it did so indirectly via labeled praise. Our results suggest that, although praise and externalizing child behavior are related, praise may not be a key mechanism underlying the effects of the parenting program. If praise has beneficial effects on children’s externalizing behavior, these effects are probably limited to labeled praise.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This work was financially supported by a grant to Geertjan Overbeek from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO:VIDI 452-10-005), Eddie Brummelman was supported by the Jacobs Foundation and Joyce Weeland was supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO:016.VENI.195.387).
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