Research shows that inflated and person-focused praise can undermine motivation in children with low self-esteem.

Parenting books may need to be rewritten in light of research showing that parents and teachers praise children with low self-esteem in ways that may eventually lower their motivation and feelings of self-worth.

We’ve found that certain types of praise can backfire, especially in children with low self-esteem—those who seem to need praise the most. In an attempt to raise these children’s self-esteem, adults often give them person praise, such as saying “You’re smart”, as well as inflated praise, such as saying “That’s incredibly beautiful”. Paradoxically, we have found that such praise can lower these children’s motivation and feelings of self-worth when they struggle or fail. So they may be put off trying new or difficult tasks. Ironically, children with lowered feelings of self-worth may then find that adults lavish more of this inappropriate praise on them, further diminishing their self-worth. A self-sustaining downward spiral may be established.

“Instead of praising children’s fixed qualities, celebrate the strategies they’ve used to achieve their outcomes. So when a child earns high grades in mathematics, praise the effort the child put into learning and practising to achieve such a wonderful outcome. And keep the praise moderate, rather than inflated, so children won’t feel pressured to perform ‘incredibly well’ all the time.”

Praise can discourage children

Here’s a typical example of the problem, described by psychologist and educator Haim Ginott in his book Between Parent and Child. When 12-year-old Linda arrived at the third level of her videogame, her father exclaimed, “You’re great! You have perfect coordination! You’re an expert player.” Linda lost interest and walked away. Her father’s praise made it difficult for her to continue because she said to herself, “Dad thinks I’m a great player, but I’m no expert. I made the third level by luck. If I try again, I may not even make the second level. It is better to quit while I’m ahead.”

Person praise backfires

Adults seem particularly inclined to give person praise to children with low self-esteem. In one of our studies, parents read scenarios involving children with either high or low self-esteem, such as: “Sarah is often happy [unhappy] with herself. She has just made a drawing.” Parents wrote down the praise they would give. Parents gave children with low self-esteem more than twice as much person praise (30%) (such as “You’re great!”) as they gave children with high self-esteem (14%). By contrast, they gave those with low self-worth somewhat less process praise (such as “You worked really hard at this!”).

Person praise can have adverse effects, as Carol Dweck of Stanford University and her colleagues have demonstrated in several landmark experiments. In our own research, we found that the effects can be especially adverse for children with low self-esteem. We did an experiment where children reported their self-esteem and then played a competitive game. They were randomly assigned to receive person praise, process praise, or no praise after practicing the game. Children were then randomly assigned to succeed or fail at the game. As predicted, person praise caused children, especially those with low self-esteem, to feel down about themselves. Process praise did not have an adverse effect.

Inflated praise can also backfire

Adults sometimes also try to raise self-esteem by giving overly positive, inflated praise. Instead of telling children that they did well, for example, adults may tell them that they did incredibly well. In one of our studies, adults read scenarios involving children with high or low self-esteem, and they wrote down the praise they would give. Adults gave children with low self-esteem more inflated praise (33%) than they gave children with high self-esteem (18%). We replicated these findings in home observations of actual parent-child interactions.

The effects of such tendencies among adults are revealed in another of our studies. In this experiment, children answered questions to establish their level of self-esteem and were then invited to draw a painting, Wild Roses by Vincent van Gogh. Each drawing was ostensibly evaluated by a professional painter. Children were randomly assigned to receive inflated praise (“You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!”), non-inflated praise (“You made a beautiful drawing!”), or no praise.

Later, children were presented with pairs of drawings. From each pair, they chose which one to draw. One was a simple drawing about which they were told: “You won’t make many mistakes, but you won’t learn much either”. The other was a complex drawing about which they were told: “You might make many mistakes, but you’ll definitely learn a lot, too”. As predicted, the inflated praise led children with low self-esteem to choose the simpler drawings. Non-inflated praise, however, led them to choose more complex drawings. So the adults, motivated to counteract children’s low self-esteem, found that their strategy did not work as intended. The outcome, however, was different for children with high self-esteem, who felt encouraged by inflated praise to take on challenges.

What do person praise and inflated praise have in common that makes them backfire in children with low self-esteem? We suggest that, in the face of such praise, children become driven by the desire to gain or avoid losing self-worth. So when they think they might fail, they will avoid the task and miss out on the crucial learning processes. And when they struggle with a task or experience failure, they may infer that they are worthless, unable to live up to the image described by those praising them. Thus can person praise and inflated praise worsen the problem that they were intended to resolve.

It’s easy to make these mistakes

Why do well-meaning adults continue to praise children with low self-esteem in inflated and person-focused ways? When adults give such praise, children’s initial response is most likely positive—smiling, sitting upright, and looking confident. This initial positive response can reinforce adults’ use of these types of praise. But adults might not recognize when, later, this praise leads to harmful effects in the face of struggles or setbacks, for these effects are counterintuitive and can occur long after the praise has been given. Thus, while the immediate positive effects of person praise and inflated praise seem obvious, their longer-term harmful effects may fly under the radar.

The process is perhaps easier to appreciate if you consider how other, also seemingly well-intended, practices by adults can have unintended consequences. Sometimes adults display affection and appreciation of a child chiefly when the child has done something good. Studies by Avi Assor and Guy Roth of Ben-Gurion University and their colleagues 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. This may put stifling pressure on children to excel and thus undermine their intrinsic motivation. Again, what seems like common sense can lead well-intentioned adults to rely on counterproductive practices.

What should parents and teachers do?

So, how should parents – as well as others who care for children, such as teachers – improve the way they praise children? Use process praise instead of person praise. Instead of praising children’s fixed qualities, celebrate the strategies they’ve used to achieve their outcomes. So when a child earns high grades in mathematics, praise the effort the child put into learning and practising to achieve such a wonderful outcome. By doing so, parents and teachers focus children on the actions that lead to success, and teach them that they can learn and improve themselves. And keep the praise moderate, rather than inflated, so children won’t feel pressured to perform “incredibly well” all the time. By giving moderate praise, parents and teachers set realistic standards for children.

It’s quite easy to give praise. But children with low self-esteem may need more than that. In recent research, we have shown that an important predictor of low self-worth is a lack of warmth and affection that children receive from parents. In some cases, it might be more important to build better relationships with children than to give praise. Parents might spend more time with them, show more interest in what they’re doing, and demonstrate that they value their company. Parents can thus convey to children that they are valued for who they are, regardless of their achievements.

Policy Implications

Those caring for children – such as parents, teachers, and mental-health professionals – should be informed about harmful and helpful types of praise.

Practice Implications

Don’t stop praising children. Rather, focus your praise on children’s process (such as their successful strategies), and keep your praise moderate.

References

 Brummelman E, Crocker J & Bushman BJ (2016), The praise paradox: When and why praise backfires in children with low self-esteem, Child Development Perspectives 10.2