Is praising your child actually damaging them?

This may seem like an odd question to ask.  And for most people, whether they are parents or not, the answer seems obvious.  However, according to new research, most of us praise children in ways which can actually be damaging for their self-esteem.

So how can praise possibly damage a child’s self-esteem?  How can positive and reassuring words lead to harm?  Spend a few moments thinking about the praise you’ve handed out recently, whether that was to other adults or children.  When you praise another person with words such as “Good Job” or “That was a great presentation” or “You drew a great picture”, etc. you are effectively passing judgement on that other person’s performance.  For children, the message they receive is “Other people’s opinions of my performance are more important than my own”.  As soon as you value other people’s opinions above yours, you open yourself up to criticism and negativity.

Not only does praise leave children more vulnerable to criticism, but it can also cause them to feel responsible for other people’s happiness.  When their parents come out with praise such as “You were such a good boy for tidying your room”, the child can see how happy this makes the parent.  The message the child receives from this is “If I’m good, my parents are happy”.  In a child’s logic it is then only a very small step to “If my parents are unhappy, it must mean I’m being bad”.  As adults, we can understand that there are many reasons why someone may be unhappy and that it is not necessarily down to us.  However, children don’t understand things in the same way and if they believe they make their parents happy through good deeds, their only conclusion is that if their parents are unhappy, they have done something wrong.  As the children grow, this can again lead to their feelings of self-esteem being negatively influenced by those around them. 

So surely there’s no more?  Unfortunately, there’s a lot of research which shows that praising children at academic tasks can actually have a negative effect on their performance. 

In The Examined Life, Grosz cites research by the psychologists Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller, who, as part of an experiment, asked 128 children to solve maths problems. On completing the first set of questions, some children were told, “You did really well — you’re so clever”; the others, “You did really well — you must have tried really hard.”

Both sets of children were then given more difficult maths problems. Those who had been praised for their efforts solved more problems and worried less about failing than those who had been told that they were clever.  Even worse, when asked by the researchers to describe the experiment, some of the “clever” children lied about the results: they exaggerated their own scores.

“All it took to knock these youngsters’ confidence, to make them so unhappy that they lied, was one sentence of praise,” writes Grosz. They felt they had to live up to the erroneously inflated opinion others seemed to have of them.

Further research suggests that if a child is praised for school work they do well, they are less likely to stretch themselves, take risks and try something else.  Think about your own school days and ask yourself why you enjoyed some subjects and hated others?  The reality is the subjects you loved were those that you were good at and subsequently were praised for.  The subjects you hated were those that probably brought you less or no praise. 

So is praise always bad or are there circumstances when it can be helpful?  In general, if praise follows these two rules, it is beneficial:

  • If it praises the effort going into a task rather than the result of the task.  Recognising the time, effort and hard work which went into the task encourages the child to continue to put effort into everything they do and to value working hard rather than obtaining results. 

  • If the praise is non-judgemental and not intended to manipulate the child into repeating a particular behaviour in the future.

If you’re ever unsure about whether to praise a child or not, why not ask them how they feel about what they have achieved?  You may ask a question such as “I see you’ve drawn a picture of a house there.  How do you feel about it?”  If they come back and say something positive such as “I think its amazing!” then the child is praising themselves and recognising their own achievements without the need for external validation.  As they grow, that ability to recognise their own success rather than rely on other people’s opinions will be essential for a healthy sense of self-esteem. 

Many of us were brought up in families in which criticism was the default mode.  When we become parents, we praise our children to “demonstrate that we are different from our parents”.  We felt that if criticism was harmful to us as children then praise must be positive.  And from an adult perspective this is correct, however adults have a way of being able to cognitively process and understand things which children cannot.  From a child’s perspective, praise may be less harmful than criticism, however making praise results focussed rather than effort focussed can still cause many issues for children as they grow.