All parents want their children to grow up healthy and happy. They also wish them to have a good self-esteem and to be resilient. But in many cases the early childahood education strategies they apply are absolutely counterproductive. In fact, the tendency to praise children can be very harmful, unless you know how to do it.
On the contrary to what we believe, some psychologists at Iowa State University and Case Western Reserve University found that praise, when becomes a constant need for affirmation, do not feed healthy self-esteem in children, but end up developing the narcissistic characteristics. Inappropriate praises end up creating children too concerned about themselves, rather than developing children capable, confident and empathetic.
Types of praise which completely destroy the child’s self-esteem
1. Praise excessively and without substance
Without realizing it, many parents praise their children disproportionately. For example, some parents may praise their child throughout the journey back home only for a score in the match. The exaggerated praise often include words such as “exceptional”, “perfect” and “the best”. But it is certain that these exorbitant praise doesn’t give good results.
In fact, it has been observed that children who have low self-esteem feel uncomfortable with excessive praise and prefer a more specific one. In this regard, a study by psychologists at the University of Utrecht revealed that 25% of the praise that parents give to their children is excessive. Another study conducted at Stanford University found that when parents use praise involving social comparison, like “you’re the best of your team or class”, children develop a more extrinsic motivation and focus more on the rewards rather than worry about doing a good job.
Antidote: Give a compliment addressed to the hard work, the practice, the effort. It means praising the characteristics we are interested to develop, such as perseverance and dedication. Therefore, the next time, a simple “Good job!” accompanied by a smile or a hug, might be enough.
2. Praise the natural abilities
It is normal for parents if their son scores more goals than anyone else, or if shows an exceptional musical talent for his age. As a result, the compliments like “you’re a great player”, “You’re an artist” or “You’re the best” are quite common.
But again, these awards focus to highlight the erroneous characteristics. In fact, we cannot forget that in many sports and artistic expressions children were chosen for their natural abilities, such as coordination, speed, good ear or the voice. However, these capabilities are not sufficient to carve out a career, what really makes the difference is persistence and dedication. It is not the first time that children with good qualities for acting, for example, do not go far because of their wrong decisions, while others, less gifted, make careers thanks to their perseverance.
The worst thing is that this kind of praise eventually affects children because, if they have this ability, of course, they will think not to need much effort. In fact, a study conducted by Columbia University psychologists found that children receiving this type of praise are less likely to choose difficult challenges because are afraid to fail, and this can lead them to resign.
Antidote: Center the praise on the action, rather than on capacity. Again, focus on their desire to excel and work hard, because these are things that the child can actually control and where needs to be motivated.
3. Transforming praises in labels
There is nothing more limiting than labels, even if “positives”. Labels, by principle, reduce our personality to a feature. In fact, many parents, when praising their children, always use the same words, with which they create a label. In this way, children grow up thinking that they are only “a player”, “an athlete” or “an artist”. However, if we want our children fully developed, it is not appropriate to limit their “ego” to these capacities.
Inadvertently, with this type of praise parents are directing the attention of their children towards these abilities, pointing out that they are only that, and likely to succeed in life just for that. Thus, they limit their universe of interests.
Antidote: Avoid using labels when praising and try to expand child’s universe, making him see his potential. It must be the child to choose what he really likes and care about.
4. Transforming praises in shame
In many cases, parents begin praising an attitude or an activity that their child has done, and complete the sentence with a recall at the end of the speech. For example: “It’s nice to walk into your room without having all the toys under my feet. I’m glad you put everything in order. Isn’t it better to walk on a clean floor?” So, what began as a compliment to the organization, ends up generating the feeling of shame in the child. The addition of an “I told you that before” takes off praise all the positive feelings we wanted to awaken.
When we add to the end of praise a sentence of this type, the child is left with a bitter taste and praise fails to reinforce positive behavior, it conveys the idea that no matter what he does, his parents will never be satisfied. Therefore, an end up creating a sense of despair and defeatism, then it is not surprising that the child takes a defensive and challenging attitude.
Antidote: Focus on the effort he made, in solving the problem, rather than the difficulties that this may cause. Of course, it doesn’t mean avoiding the consequences of the problems, but ensure that the praise is doing its job: make sure the child feels well and reinforce positive behavior.
5. Adding pressure to praise
Praise should aim to motivate children, it must not add more pressure. But parents often make the mistake of turning praise into a source of anxiety. For example, some parents say, “You did it very well, next time you’d be better” or “You were great, the next time I expect the same from you”.
The problem is in this way we instill in the child the fear of failure. The child has to shoulder the expectations of parents, and these are often so heavy as to crush him.
Antidote: Praise the actual result, without referring to the future, do not add further pressure. It is important that the child understands he is loved regardless of success or errors. In this way a person will not become dependent on the opinions of others.
Bonus: We must note that when we praise children too much, and we do it wrongly, they come to believe the reward is more important than the experience itself. Then end up developing an extrinsic motivation, they don’t strive to get the job well done but to receive the praise or reward. Also, praising them constantly can confuse them, leading them to believe that if they do not receive praise from others, such as the teacher, for example, is because they went wrong.
Brummelman, E. et. Al. (2014) “That’s Not Just Beautiful—That’s Incredibly Beautiful!” The Adverse Impact of Inflated Praise on Children With Low Self-Esteem. Psychological Science; 25(3): 728-735.
Henderlong, J. & Lepper, M. R. (2002) The Effects of Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis. Psychological Bulletin; 128(5): 774–795.
Dweck, C. S. (1999) Caution – Praise can be dangerous. American Educator; 23: 4–9.
Bushman, B. J. & Baumeister, R. F. (1998) Threatened Egotism, Narcissism, Self-Esteem, and Direct and Displaced Aggression: Does Self-Love or Self-Hate Lead to Violence? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 75(1): 219-229.
Mueller, C. M. & Dweck, C. S. (1998) Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 75(1): 33-52.