Praise is undergoing a backlash. Once held up as the royal road to self-esteem and a happy childhood by prominent psychologists like Nathanial Brandan in his book The Psychology of Self Esteem, a growing chorus of parents and professionals are pointing to a body of research showing that praise can actually have negative effects on children.
This idea has been steadily gaining traction over the past decade, particularly with the publication of Po Brosnon’s surprisingly well researched and often misunderstood book Nurture Shock and has included alarmist headlines exemplified best by a New York cover in 2007, which had a picture of a child sitting on a throne, wearing a crown, holding a scepter, with the caption “Praise is Dangerous.” Over the top much?
What is the “paradox” of praise?
Getting beyond the hyperbole and into the actual research, it’s easy to see why there is so much ammunition for either side of the argument. While researchers have found big effects for praise, they have rarely found consistent effects for praise. The strange thing is that in some studies the effects are really wonderful for the kids and in others they are terrible. A 2002 review of the research on praise compiled some of the positive and negative effects discovered:
There really is a paradox at the heart of praise. It seems to work in completely different ways in different studies. Psychologists have been working hard to understand why this is so, and what they are finding is that praise is not inherently good or bad, but extremely powerful. Whether it harms or helps has less to do with praise itself than with how it is used, and unfortunately the art of how to use praise is often drown out in the cacophony of arguments about whether it should be used at all.
How to use praise effectively
In this series of posts I will present what research and clinical experience shows are the best guidelines for using praise effectively. Praising effectively is an art, and mastering it can have important benefits for your child, and for yourself.
Here is the first, and probably the most counterintuitive, guideline:
Avoid praising the child
This one sounds strange, but it is true. If you want to have a good outcome from praising, you do not want to praise the child. Avoid praises like “you’re cute,” “nice smile,” “you’re strong” or “you’re smart!” Avoid praising what the child is, instead praise what the child does.
Avoid praising what the child is, instead praise what the child does.
Research on praise has shown that praising the child for traits, like intelligence or appearance, can backfire and lead children to have low self-esteem. This makes intuitive sense if you think about it. When children are praised for stable unchangeable traits, they begin to see positive reinforcement as something they simply cannot earn no matter how hard they try.
To get a better understanding of this, imagine if your boss at work kept praising you for things that had nothing to do with your actual work. Imagine if you were complimented on the view from your office window or how sharp your pencils are. It might seem paradoxical, but it can feel pretty lousy and disempowering to get praised for something that you didn’t really work for and has little to do with what you are striving to improve upon. This is especially true if that is all you get praised for, and this is so often the case for little ones.
If the adult instead focuses praise on those things that a child can control (that’s neat handwriting, awesome job staying in your seat, good work taking turns), the child’s self-esteem increases, her motivation increases, and whatever behavior is praised increases in frequency. If you praise taking turns, she will take turns more often, and feel great about doing it.
In the next post, I’ll discuss another critical guideline for using praise effectively: being specific.
Got questions? Contact Dr. Ron for a FREE 30 minute consult.