I regularly talk about the issue of praise with parents. Specifically, I have discussed Carol Dweck’s work on a growth versus fixed mindset and how the ways in which we praise and engage with our children influence what type of mindset they’ll have. In short, the growth mindset is one where they are always willing to try and learn because the perception is that many attributes are not set in stone. A fixed mindset is one where we perceive attributes to be fixed and unchanging which negatively influences our likelihood of trying new things.
In the groundbreaking research that Dr. Dweck has conducted, she examined the effect of praise of person versus praise of effort on future performance. Children are given some math questions and during their feedback session, they are either praised as being intelligent or for their efford or simply praised for their performance with no reason why. Most parents believe that our kids need to know we think they’re smart for them to keep going; that this praise improves their self-esteem. However, in this research, children were later given a choice between two tasks to complete: a difficult one which they were told they would learn a lot from but might not succeed or an easier task they were sure to succeed on. If you haven’t already guessed, the children whose intelligence was praised were far more likely to choose the easy task whereas the majority of children whose effort was praised (in some studies it was 90% of the children) chose the more difficult task with the performance group in the middle.
This is not a one-time study. Dr. Dweck has made her career out of examining these issues and has spend decades replicating and repeating these results. We might as well be looking at research that says smoking is bad for you. (For a review of all of this research, I strongly recommend checking out Dr. Dweck’s book Mindset.)
But… Every time I talk about this, parents actively argue against it. They say their children need them to praise them for what they do. If they don’t it’s just “wrong”. Overarching concerns seem to centre of self-esteem, with the worry that children who aren’t praised for their outcomes will not feel loved or will struggle to think they are worthy. So praise continues. Many parents end up lavishing their children not only with the kind of praise Dr. Dweck argues against, but also inflated praise, the kind that really isn’t reflective of the work at hand. You know, the piece of art that is “amazing” or the praise for getting some questions right as “you are one of the smartest kids I know” or praise for effort that’s overstated, like “you have worked so incredibly hard” when the child really hasn’t. We parents do this because we really want our kids to feel good about what they’ve done or even how hard they worked. Sometimes we really are amazed by them, but what kind of effect does this inflated praise have?
Research published at the end of last year looked at the effects of this inflated praise on children’s self-esteem. The researchers wanted to examine the effect of inflated versus accurate praise on levels of self-esteem and narcissism as there are various and competing hypotheses as to how inflated praise might affect these outcomes. Participants were 120 children aged 7 to 11, as that’s the time when self-esteem and narcissism start to develop. Baseline levels of these outcomes were first assessed then five weeks later praise was assessed during in-home observations of parent-child interactions. Narcissism and self-esteem were then assessed three more times in six-month waves.
Results provide more evidence that no matter what, inflated praise is not helpful. Starting with baseline assessments, children with lower self-esteem at baseline were more likely to have inflated parental praise; however, regardless of the baseline self-esteem, inflated parental praise was linked to lower levels of self-esteem at later time points. That is, the more inflated praise given early on, the lower a child’s self-esteem got with time (likely resulting in even more inflated praise from parents, but this was not assessed). There were no main effects on narcissism; however, there was a full moderation. Children who had high levels of self-esteem at baseline and received inflated praise had higher levels of narcissism over time.
Taken together, we see that inflated praise reduces self-esteem, but can also increase narcissism in those who start out with high self-esteem. When we think about the individual with a narcissistic personality disorder, we think of someone whose self-esteem is actually quite low, and that seems to lead to the need for praise and affirmation from those around him or her. This data, though it doesn’t look that far into the future, does fit with how we conceptualize such individuals.
Where does this take us?
For goodness sakes, please consider the praise you’re giving your children. I know it sounds weird to have to think so hard about what we tell our kids, but what we need to remember is that this whole notion of praise and self-esteem is a cultural construct. There is nothing biological or evolutionary about the need for praise. We believe our children need it because as a society we decided it was important (before we did research which has now found it has the opposite effect).
I do realize how hard this can be. I am one who catches myself doing the inflated praise thing mainly because I do feel my kids are that awesome. So I have to work on that. Often people seem to think that not praising means not addressing your child if they show you something they’re proud of or achieve some accomplishment. That’s not it. Sadly in a hyper-praise culture, we really can’t think of alternatives, but alternatives are exactly what’s needed. So here is a bit of a breakdown:
|Your child shows you something you want to praise (artwork, homework, etc.)||· Comment on how hard they worked on it with a big smile on your face
· Comment on how proud they must be of themselves
· Tell them how much you love watching them do X/their creations
|You feel your child is seeming low and down on themselves||· Remind them how much you love them no matter what
· Sit down and have some one-on-one time where your child chooses what to do
· Do an activity together where you can help scaffold your child to success
|You find your child getting an overinflated ego||· Try to notice when you praise to see if you’re making some of the above mistakes
· Point out other people’s successes and achievements
· Make sure your child knows you love him/her in times of failure
Of course there’s more you can do and lots of resources out there for you. Realizing how pervasive praise is in our society is the first step, then look to your own behaviour. Realize it’s not an all-or-none game, but how you do it. If you’re worried about your children’s self-esteem and feelings of love, make sure you’re doing things to foster that, not hinder it, even if it feels counter-intuitive at first. In time, you’ll see the effects and they will be worth it.
 Mueller CM, Dweck CS. Intelligence praise can undermine motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1998; 75: 33-52.
 Brummelman E, Nelemans SA, Thomaes S, Orobio de Castro B. When parents’ praise inflates, children’s self-esteem deflates. Child Development 2017; 88: 1799-1809.