On Praising Children

How much praise is too much?
Recently there have been some articles on the negative effects of praising children. One trend in these articles is to confuse self-esteem with narcissism. It is a healthy, realistic view of one’s self and abilities. But self-esteem is a phrase with a lot of baggage. The rampant lack of self-esteem, and people’s hunger to repair it, creates a large audience for the self-help industry. John Norcross, Ph.D. states that this industry publishes about 3000 books a year. It is big business. Norcross notes that if these books really worked, they would not have to publish so many. Parenting books are a subset of the self-help industry.

Does praise lead to narcissism?
Narcissism, from the lay person’s point of view, is an abundance of self-love, self-concern, often associated with arrogance and self-absorption. A person that is narcissistic appears to be very confident, “high on himself.” What psychologists find underneath the facade, very often, are people that are actually very insecure, unhappy, unfulfilled, and have difficulty maintaining relationships. It does not matter whether these people are accomplished or not, their true self-regard is that they are worthless and incompetent. Therapists are in a unique position to see the harmful results of narcissism, and the experiences that shape it.

Damaging effects of false praise.
In preschools sensitive to the developmental needs of children, the kids are praised for their efforts, not the quality of their work. Why? The reason for this is that children that are praised for their efforts develop a sense of efficacy, a can-do attitude that translates into other areas. Praising efforts has more chance to be authentic. It is not about the child’s talents. When a parent or a caregiver tells a child that a painting she is unhappy with is “great!” the child learns to distrust that person and her own abilities. Children are hungry for acknowledgment, but they will spot false praise a mile off. A story in the Wall Street Journal addresses the destructiveness of false praise.

Fear of being a disappointment.
Children told that everything they do is fantastic are faced with a different dilemma. If the expectation is that what I do is fantastic, then if I fail I will be a disappointment. Depending on the level of hype, this may result in the child shying away from new activities where they might perform at a less-than-fabulous level. Thus, such a child attempts fewer things, self-limits her experiences, has less opportunities for growth. Deep down, children want their parents’ approval.

A recent study on efforts-based praise versus achievement-based praise.
Children that are praised for their efforts develop the attitude that even with difficult tasks they can do the work. In a study that compared the two approaches, praising production versus praising efforts in schools, it was found that the children whose efforts were praised scored better on tests. Here is an article that mentions the effects of different kinds of praise on testing.

Effects in college years.
There’s another factor in overpraising kids. Kids that have been told that everything they do is of superior quality are in for a rude awakening when they go college, or even high school for that matter. If they went to a school where they were told spelling was not important, just to express themselves, they may find that they are demoralized to find that spelling is important, that it effects how people perceive your competence, and that it may even effect your grades. The anything goes philosophy is more likely to be found in schools that call themselves “progressive” — though some of these schools are excellent.

Kalea Chapman, Psy.D.

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2 thoughts on “On Praising Children

  1. This is a very interesting summary of praise. I was wondering if you’re familiar with “The Family Virtues Guide.” I’m currently taking a course in it right now and one of the main focuses is to praise the action, not the actor, which is similar to what you’re saying here. But one of the key things it teaches is to encourage children using the language of the virtues. In my experience as a parent, elementary and high school teacher and all of the books that I’ve read, it seems that one of the key issues is in praising children based on material things (you’re so cute, you got an A!, you’re a great swimmer) rather than on the virtues, which builds self-esteem.

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  2. Pingback: Parenting Books: Hazards and Fortunes « pasadena therapist

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