As a parent, a big part of your role is to support and encourage your children and praising them is a very common way to do that. However, a recent study by University of Amsterdam researcher Eddie Brummelman shows that praise, while usually well-intended, sometimes has undesired consequences. Particularly in children who already show signs of low self-esteem.
In this article we’re going to look at why praise can be damaging and give you some recommended techniques you can use to build self-esteem in your children in a healthier way.
Why is over-praising bad for children?
In one of Eddie’s studies, researchers observed parent-child interactions and documented how often parents praised their children and then followed the development of self-esteem over time. They found that children with low self-esteem received a lot of inflated praise. But the more inflated praise they got, the lower their self-esteem.
Sounds counter-intuitive, right. So why did that happen? If you tell a child that they did an incredible drawing, they’ll probably believe you and feel great about themselves in that moment. But then how will they feel the next time they go to do a drawing? There’s going to be a lot of pressure on them to do just as incredible a job this time in order to get that same praise from you again.
All of a sudden without realising it, you’ve set a high expectation from your child that they likely won’t voice to you but might worry and stress about. They might question whether or not they are capable of achieving “incredible” standards again, that maybe they can’t, that maybe they’re not actually incredible afterall.
In another example, a child who gets inflated praise at home may not get the same praise elsewhere at school, in their after-school activities, or among friends. They may again start to question their self-worth because no one else seems to think they’re as special as they thought they were.
Or by over-praising your child you may end up developing an over-confident, narcissistic child that struggles to make friends as a result. That too can have a negative impact on their ability to socialise which is linked to anxiety and depression.
So how should you praise your child?
Eddie’s advice to parents is to focus on the child’s behaviour rather than their character. “You want to praise them for something that they can actually control and change about themselves.”
For example, instead of telling a child that they are amazing because they got an A in a test, instead tell them you’re proud of the hard work they put into their studies and you’re happy that they got the grade they deserved.
Eddie says that children can connect success to a process and therefore, helping them to identify or even create their own processes will help them see their ability to find solutions themselves, and therefore build their self-esteem.
A mistake that parents should avoid is giving children the answers or doing their homework for them thinking that a high grade will build their confidence. This is actually damaging behaviour from the parent. You’re unknowingly telling your child that you don’t think they’re smart enough to do it themselves. You’re also setting a standard for homework that may be unrealistic for your child. Instead, let them make mistakes and help them to learn from them. Let them find their own solutions by showing them how to problem-solve and letting them know it’s OK not to know everything straight away.
By empowering them with the knowledge of how to learn something new, how to be a beginner and how to find solutions, you’ll be giving them skills for life and that’s something that can be praised.
Eddie also recommends that as a general rule, inflated praise should be avoided because you might unintentionally set very high standards that are hard to live up to. He says “Maybe the most important takeaway is to realize that you can be warm and affectionate with your child and raise their self-esteem without putting the child on a pedestal.”