In the second half of the 20th century, boosting children’s self-esteem started becoming an important aspect of parenting and lavishing children with praise was considered to be the most effective way of achieving this. This thinking endures today, with 85 percent of American parents believing that their children need to hear that they are clever in order to succeed.
But research now suggests that praising children too much or using ‘evaluative’ praise can be just as harmful as criticising them.
How can praise negatively affect a child?
For more than a decade, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia examined a group of primary school children and saw how they responded to praise.
She discovered that children tend towards two mindsets:
- The first is a ‘fixed mindset’, the child who believes that their intelligence is set in stone, and that they should ‘stick to what they’re good at’, lest failure result.
- The second, healthier mindset is the ‘growth mindset’ belonging to the child who is happy to take on new challenges because they see them as opportunities for growth and new experiences, even if it involves making mistakes because they understand that they can learn from these mistakes.
Dweck discovered that the children’s experience of praise had everything to do with these mindsets. The ‘failure fearing’ children were generally used to being praised for their intelligence, whereas the second (who were willing to stick at something even after making mistakes) were more familiar with being praised for their effort and level of perseverance, rather than the outcome.
“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” Carol Dweck explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
Are there any other disadvantages to over praising?
Best-selling author Alfie Kohn argues that the reason why praise can work in the short run is that young children are hungry for our approval, but that we as parents have a responsibility not to ‘exploit that dependence for our own convenience’.
We can also fall into the trap of using praise to overcompensate for a lack of something. So for example, if we’ve been distracted by work and unable to spend much quality time with them, or if we are a single parent, we might heap on the praise indiscriminately as a form of condensed love. The danger of this kind of ‘blanket praise’ is that children tend to question its authenticity so they either start to disbelieve what we’re saying, or they go to the other extreme and become “praise junkies”.
‘It leads them to measure their worth in terms of what will lead us to smile and dole out some more approval.’ Kohn strongly believes in a child’s right (and need!) to be able to value his or her own work for themselves.
So when and how should we be praising our kids?
6 best ways to praise your child(ren) to boost their confidence:
- Praise their effort and perseverance: When we focus on our children’s effort, rather than the outcome of that effort, we encourage them to learn the art of motivation and self-evaluation: “Yes I worked really hard to get to this result, so it’s worth making the effort and persevering even when things get tough in the future”.
- Make it about them. If we want our children to develop their own power of self-evaluation, instead of ‘praise junkies’, who are dependent on us to tell them if they are doing well, it’s important that we focus on them rather than ourselves. So instead of saying “I’m so proud of you”, try “You worked so hard to achieve this, you must be so proud of yourself and all the effort you put in.” This teaches them how to recognise and value their own achievements, without relying on the praise of others.
- Praise descriptively and try to avoid using ‘evaluative’ praise – For example, if your child has drawn a picture, instead of saying ‘Wow, what a wonderful drawing!”, try complimenting a specific aspect of their efforts: “ I love the colours you’ve chosen and all the detail you’ve added – you must have worked really hard on it!” Your child will appreciate that you have take an interest in their work and how it was executed, and is much better then offering non-specific evaluative praise.
- Try not to criticise – accentuate the positive, reduce the negative – Positives should always outweigh the negatives when you’re giving feedback of any kind to your child. This helps to fill their “I’m capable” account because the last thing you want to do is fuel their anxieties and lack of confidence by correcting and criticising them all the time. So, rather than saying ‘No, you’re not doing it right’, try making a helpful suggestion instead: ‘I see that you’ve done it this way. Have you considered doing it like this? It might make be easier to do this way.’
- Praise specific actions rather than their overall behaviour – Praising a child’s actions rather than their overall behaviour helps them to understand that a behaviour is something that they choose rather than something they are. So, rather than saying “You’ve behaved really well at Granny’s today,” try, “I really appreciated that you helped Granny tidy the toys away”.
- Be honest. Even young kids can tell when we’re being dishonest, which is why it’s so important to always tell the truth. If they’re getting making mistakes and getting things wrong, try to avoid labelling their actions as good or bad and bring it back to the fact that they are practising, so they know that you appreciate the effort they’re putting in, even if you don’t agree with the way they’re going about it.
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