Singing the Praises

Can Well-Meant Praise Discourage Children?

By: Sarah Whitehead

Have you tried using praise to help your child’s self-esteem? Do you find yourself wondering if you compliment them too much or too little? You are not alone. Many parents try to use praise as a form of motivation; however, recent research has shown that this has the potential to backfire if not done right.

Dr Eddie Brummelman from the University of Amsterdam explains that in trying to raise a child’s self-esteem, adults often give them ‘person praise’, such as saying “You’re smart,” or ‘inflated praise’ such as “That’s incredibly beautiful.” While their intention is to motivate them and acknowledge their achievements, it could potentially discourage children from trying out new or difficult tasks.

Singing the Praises

In his book, Between Parent and Child, Psychologist Haim Ginott demonstrates this with an example of a 12-year-old girl who had reached the third level of a videogame and received both inflated and person praise from her father. He said: “You’re great! You’re an expert player.” Inadvertently, this caused the girl to lose interest because she was worried about not achieving the same level if she tried again. Following Brummelman’s advice, the father should have praised the process his daughter went through to achieve that level instead of giving her person or inflated praise.

Brummelman explains: “Instead of praising children’s fixed qualities, celebrate the strategies they have used to achieve their outcomes. So when a child earns high grades in mathematics, praise the effort the child has put into learning and practicing to achieve such a wonderful outcome. By doing so, parents and teachers would shift children’s focus on the actions that lead to success, and teach them that they can learn and improve themselves.” He also advises adults to keep praise moderate in order to set realistic standards and avoid pressuring kids into always performing ‘exceptionally well’.

The reason most adults fall into the pit when it comes to person or inflated praise is the immediate reaction of the kids who are receiving it. The short-term effect appears to be positive, with kids smiling, sitting upright and appearing more confident. However, parents must be aware of the adverse, longer-term effects which may go unnoticed.

“The process is perhaps easier to appreciate if you consider how other, also seemingly well-intended, practices by adults can have unintended consequences,” says Brummelman. “Sometimes, adults display affection and appreciation of a child chiefly when they have done something good, [and studies] have shown that such conditional love can be harmful. Although adults may believe it will spark children’s motivation, conditional love can convey to children that they are worthy when they succeed, but worthless when they fail.” He also warns that this can undermine children’s intrinsic motivation.

With that said, will moderate process praise be enough to help kids develop a stronger self-esteem? Not necessarily. Parents should also look at other factors associated with self-esteem outside the realms of praise. An important predictor of low self-worth in children is the lack of warmth and affection they receive from their parents.

In some cases, building a better relationship with your child can actually help them more than praise. It is very important for parents to understand where the issues stem from and invest in more time with their kids to show them that they are valued for who they are, regardless of their achievements.

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