Being nice to your kid is a good thing, right? Ever since the backlash against the perceived authoritarian parenting of the 1950s, Western parents have been experimenting with gentler ways of parenting – ways that would bolster self-esteem while shaping growing young minds into thoughtful and evolved little human beings.
“Spanking” became “time-out”, force-feeding purées turned into baby-led weaning. Many of today’s parents were themselves raised using the hugely popular method of the ’70s: PET, or parent effectiveness training. Its principles of conflict resolution via the use of “I” messages and reflecting back the other person’s statements became so accepted they are almost a given in interpersonal relationships these days.
If he brings you a Lego sculpture, you want your child to feel good about his effort, and keep on practising, and getting better, by making more. Later in life you hope the same principle will apply to his eventual mastery of football or science. Intuition suggests praising a kid, especially one who has some trouble believing they’re talented, is the right thing to do. But we may be seeing only part of the picture.
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Low self-esteem and praise
“In current Western society, children are often lavished with inflated praise,” assert the authors of a new study, published in the journal Psychological Science, called “That’s Not Just Beautiful— That’s Incredibly Beautiful!”: The Adverse Impact of Inflated Praise on Children With Low Self-Esteem.
In this study, the authors draw a distinction between praise (“Good job!”) and inflated praise (“That’s an exceptionally good drawing!”). Parents heaped more inflated praise on children with low self-esteem – those who seemed to need it more.
“It’s understandable why adults would do that, but we found that this inflated praise can backfire in these children,” said co-author Brad Bushman. Because nobody can be constantly exceptional, this praise can actually have negative repercussions: anxiety, performance pressure, opting-out.
In the next study, children were asked to copy a Van Gogh painting and received feedback, purportedly from a professional painter: either excessive praise, praise, or no praise at all. The children could next choose whether
to draw an easy picture, or a difficult picture, which would allow them to learn much more but at the risk of making more mistakes.
In spite of receiving inflated praise, the children with low self-esteem were less likely to attempt the difficult picture, while children with high self esteem were eager to try the harder task after lots of praise.
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“Inflated praise might convey to children that they should continue to meet very high standards – a message that might discourage children with low self esteem from taking on challenges,” the study’s authors postulated.
Some children who receive constant praise may cease to trust their parents as reliable authorities, while still others may develop a distortedly elevated view of themselves. Much has been written about the entitlement mentality of Generation Y (today’s young adults), whom the working world experiences as being unwilling to work hard at the bottom rungs of the career ladder.
If parents tell their children with high self-esteem that everything they do is exceptional, then that unique, special snowflake is likely to face disappointment when some experiences in his adult life do not reflect his doting parents’ superlatives.
“By overpraising children you create a belief that they are better than everyone else and will always be on top of their game under any circumstances, which is sure to backre as it is not realistic,” says Johannesburg child psychologist Cristine Scolari (www.childpsychologist.co.za). So it makes sense to be thoughtful with your positive feedback.
In a different 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology called On Feeding Those Hungry For Praise: Person Praise Backfires in Children With Low Self-Esteem, the same lead author, Eddie Brummelman, and others, found praise to be heavily context-dependent. In the article they suggest that commending a child’s
personal qualities, rather than a specific action or behaviour, can make a child feel ashamed, because they might feel that they are valued only if they succeed.
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This is not new advice. For years, parents have been counselled to say, “You spent a long time carefully colouring inside the lines of that drawing, and it looks great. I am proud of you,” rather than, “You are an amazing artist.” Similarly, say, “I noticed how you helped your brother down from the jungle gym. Thank you for that,” rather than, “You are a helpful person.”
Praise your children for qualities over which they can exercise control: helpfulness, diligence, loving acts, dedicated practice, and not their innate qualities such as athletic talents, intelligence or physical attractiveness. The corollary, from PET, is using “I-messages” for criticism (which is of course the opposite of praise). Instead of saying, “You are rude and inconsiderate,” parents are advised to say, “I don’t like it when you interrupt me when I talk to your father.”
A 2013 study along the same lines, published in the US journal Child Development, contrasts “process praise” with “person praise” and notes that children who are praised for their effort, rather than their ability, have better problem-solving skills.
These children are less likely to believe that their abilities are fixed at a certain level, and more likely to believe that their own hard work can affect the outcome of a task. Such praise is more likely to result in an “intrinsically motivated” child, adds Cristine.
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“That’s the difference between a child who studies hard because they want a reward for a good grade versus a child who studies hard because they themselves want to do well.”
We all know from our own experience that praise that is doled out lazily is less valued. But an occasional detailed compliment will be remembered for years. Let’s aim to make our praise count in our children’s favour.