For most parents today, giving your children a pat on the back when they succeed is second nature. With little kids, it can be a teaching tool to help reinforce good habits. (“I’m so proud of you for using the potty!” or “Good job holding my hand all the way across the street!”) And as children grow older, parents tend to keep up the cheerleading—especially if their kids’ self-esteem seems to be flagging. But is a constant stream of kudos really helping your child? New research has found that when it comes to praise, a little goes a long way, and the wrong kind of praise can actually lower a child’s feelings of self-worth.
For example, imagine this scenario: Your son, who has been struggling in his math class, proudly brings home a test marked with a big, red A. What’s your response?
a) Wow, look at that! You are so smart—a math genius!
b) Congratulations! You studied really hard for that test, and your work paid off!
c) Great job! I’m so proud of you for not giving up.
Many parents would choose the first answer—after all, who wouldn’t be tempted to shout from the rooftops about how “smart” their kid is—but a new study from the Netherlands shows that the second and third answers are actually the better ways to go. Why?
Praising your children for inherent personal qualities—saying things like “you’re so smart,” “you’re an amazing artist,” or even simply “you’re great” —seems like it would naturally boost their self-esteem. But the researchers found that when that child fails at a task she was told she was “good” at, it can have the opposite effect, increasing feelings of shame at not living up to expectations. Meanwhile, the study authors also found that kids who were praised for their effort, instead—who were told, “you worked really hard at that” or “you did a great job drawing” —were more likely to have higher self-esteem.
“[Praising children for their inherent qualities] might convey to children that they are valued as a person only when they succeed,” said lead researcher Eddie Brummelman, of Utrecht University. “When children subsequently fail, they may infer they are unworthy.”
And then there’s the question of how much self-esteem is actually good for kids? Writer Sue Shellenbarger recently tackled this issue in The Wall Street Journal, noting that, “It can be good for kids to have low self-esteem, at least temporarily,” as a consequence for mean, selfish, or hurtful behavior. Also, she says, exaggerated praise does kids no favors. Instead, “children who have a realistic—not inflated—understanding of how they are seen by others tend to be more resilient.”
An inflated sense of self-esteem can also backfire by discouraging hard work, according to a 2007 study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, which found that when struggling college students were bombarded with praise aimed at boosting their self-esteem, their grades actually went down. The researchers speculated this was because the students began to believe that their success hinged on a factor outside of their control (their smarts) rather than a factor within their control (their effort).
In the WSJ article, Shellenberger spoke with several families who are trying to find a balance between raising children who are happy and self-confident, but not entitled. Laural O’Dowd, whose 11-year-old son Cole is getting straight As in accelerated math classes, said, “It’s hard not to say, ‘That’s awesome,’ ” and to congratulate him on his grades. But if we praise him constantly, his self-esteem becomes centered on always being very smart and being the best and being perfect. And when you get out in the real world, you’re not necessarily No. 1.” So what does she say instead? “It’s awesome that you’re working so hard on your homework.”