When Praise Hurts: The Psychology of Gushing

We all want kids to feel good about themselves, and far too many kids get no praise at all from adults. But are the superlatives necessary? More to the point, does lavish praise really boost kids' self-esteem and help them do well in school -- and in life?
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Search the Internet for "101 Ways to Praise a Child" and you'll find a poster -- actually many variations of a single poster. Some are available to download, or if you want quantities, you can purchase the posters from a discount school supply house, laminated if you choose. Some are simple black-and-white typography, while others have bright, four-color, illustrated borders. They are available for classroom teachers, for speech and language therapists, for drug educators -- and of course for parents.

I don't know the precise origins of the "101 Ways to Praise a Child" poster, but it was no doubt a product of the self-esteem movement that began to sweep the nation's schools in the '90s. The guiding philosophy of the poster and the movement is that, if praise is good for children's self-esteem, lavish praise is better. Why settle for "Nice work" when you can praise kids and their efforts as "awesome," "dynamite or "phenomenal"?

We all want kids to feel good about themselves, and far too many kids get no praise at all from adults. But are the superlatives necessary? More to the point, does lavish praise really boost kids' self-esteem and help them do well in school -- and in life?

Psychological scientists are beginning to question the value of gushing over kids and their work. Indeed, some believe that lavish praise may actually be harmful -- and most harmful to the kids most in need of confidence. Utrecht University's Eddie Brummelman and his colleagues ran the first empirical studies of inflated praise, with some sobering results.

The scientists first wanted to see if it's true that adults are more likely to lavish accolades on children with low self-esteem rather than kids with good self-images. We assume this is true, but it's never been demonstrated. They recruited a large group of adults, mostly women and mostly parents, and asked them to read descriptions of hypothetical children. Some were described as having good self-esteem, the others as having poor self-esteem. Each of the hypothetical children performed in some way -- playing the piano or working math problems, for example -- after which the subjects wrote down the words of praise they would give the child.

The subjects' language was coded by independent judges, who rated it either non-inflated (Good job!) or inflated (That sounded magnificent!). As expected, the adults gave much more lavish praise to children who they perceived as lacking in self-esteem. This was true of parents and teachers alike.

So it appears that when kids have a poor sense of their worth, this perception causes adults to inflate their praise -- at least in the laboratory. Brummelman and his colleagues decided to double-check this in a more natural setting, so they recruited a group of caregivers, primarily mothers, and their children, who ranged in age from 7 to 11. The kids completed a standard measure of self-esteem, and then a few days later, the scientists observed the parents and children at home. The children did some math exercises, which were timed, and the parents had to judge their performance. The sessions were videotaped, and as before, independent judges rated the parents' words of praise. And as before, children with low self-esteem received more lavish praise.

So that's understandable, and humane, it would seem. We buck up the kids who need it. But is this kindness really helping them? That's the key question. To test this, the scientists ran a final experiment. Children again completed a measure of their self-esteem. Then they made a drawing -- a replica of van Gogh's "Wild Roses" -- and received either inflated praise, regular praise or no praise from a "professional painter." Then the scientists assessed the children's desire to be challenged -- specifically, their willingness to take on more difficult drawings. They told the children: "If you choose to draw these pictures, you might make many mistakes, but you'll definitely learn a lot, too."

They predicted that the kids who had a poor self-image to start, and then received excessive praise, would be more apt to shy away from challenging work. Kids with high self-esteem, on the other hand, would be emboldened by the adult gushing.

And that's just what they found, and describe in an article to appear in the journal Psychological Science. Over-the-top praise ("You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!") made kids reluctant to take on challenging, risky work -- but only the kids with poor self-image to start. The kids who started off confident got more confident in the wake of inflated praise.

What's happening here? The scientists believe that praise sends a message about future standards. When we praise a child, we're saying: You measured up to the norm we've set, and that's good. But when the praise is excessive, it's like saying: You've measured up to an extremely high standard -- today. What an insecure child hears is: And we'll expect you to keep meeting that unrealistic standard from now on. The simplest way to avoid failing in the future is to avoid challenges altogether.

It appears that "101 Ways to Praise a Child" might need some editing -- just to bring it down a notch. Even the most well meant acts of kindness can backfire -- and damage the most vulnerable kids. And that's an incredible shame.

Follow Wray Herbert's reporting on psychological science on Twitter at @wrayherbert.

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