Parents’ inflated praise – “Terrific!”, “Your drawing is amazing!”, or “You did incredibly well!” – predicts lower self-esteem and sometimes even narcissism in children, according to research involving 120 7- to 11-year-olds and their parents.

This research suggests rethinking the tendency in Western countries to try to cure low self-esteem with excessive praise.

Four times at six-month intervals, the children completed a questionnaire at school that assessed their self-esteem and tendency towards narcissism. Five weeks after the first assessment, parents were asked to administer 12 mathematics exercises to their children. These sessions were videotaped and assessed for extremely positive, inflated praise, which includes words like “extremely”, “incredibly”, “amazing”, and “fantastic”.

Children with lower self-esteem received inflated praise from their parents more often, and this, in turn, predicted lower self-esteem over time. Inflated praise also predicted lower self-esteem in children with high self-esteem, but these children were exposed to less of it.

Inflated praise also predicted higher narcissism, but only in children with high initial levels of self-esteem to start with.

The study shows that parents’ well-meant attempts to bolster self-esteem in children can backfire. It also shows that children with low self-esteem are more likely to attract inflated praise, creating a damaging negative feedback loop.

Why does inflated praise lead to lower self-esteem? This research supports the idea that such praise sets unattainable standards that gradually undermine children’s confidence over time as they encounter life’s inevitable difficulties. In children with high self-esteem, perhaps inflated praise encourages them to think that they are, indeed, amazing and incredible.

See also on Child and Family Blog by one of the same authors, Well-meant praise can discourage children.

Header photo: Kat Northern Lights Man. Creative Commons.

References

Brummelman E, Nelemans SA, Thomaes S & Orobio de Castro B (2017), When parents’ praise inflates, children’s self-esteem deflates, Child Development