Many parents believe that their children are “perfect” and “fantastically” good at everything, from art to tee ball. But new research suggests that children with low self-esteem don’t need to hear those kinds of affirmations.
According to research published in the journal Psychological Science, exaggerated praise may hinder a child's growth and willingness to take on new challenges.
Through a series of studies, researchers at Ohio State University and other schools found that “inflated praise”—the kind littered with unnecessary adverbs and adjectives—can often backfire. One example of inflated praise, the researchers said, is telling a child “You’re incredibly good at this,” instead of simply saying “You’re good at this.”
“Parents seemed to think that the children with low self-esteem needed to get extra praise to make them feel better," study co-author Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State, said in a statement. “It's understandable why adults would do that, but we found in another experiment that this inflated praise can backfire in these children.”
Children with low self-esteem will often find themselves recipients of praise, as many parents, teachers, and other influential adults feel the need to pile on the encouragement. And adults are twice as likely to give inflated praise to children with the lowest self-esteem.
But that abundant praise may convince children to take on less challenging tasks if they know they can easily complete them and get a dose of positive feedback.
What Does Inflated Praise Sound Like?
In one study, 114 parents gave 12 math exercises to their children at home and graded their children without researchers in the room. Upon viewing the tapes of the exercises, researchers found that parents with children previously identified as having low self-esteem gave inflated compliments twice as often as parents of children with normal self-esteem.
On average, one quarter of the six compliments the parents gave their children were considered inflated. The most common phrases were “You answered very fast!”, “Super good!”, and “Fantastic!” On the flip side, the most common non-inflated praise statements included “You're good at this!” and “Well done!”
Of the parents in that study, 88 percent were mothers.
Inflated Praise May Create Added Pressure
A separate study appears to suggest that this inflated praise puts too much pressure on children with low self-esteem.
Two hundred and forty children drew their version of Vincent van Gogh’s painting “Wild Roses.” They were critiqued by a person they were told was a professional painter, and were given inflated, non-inflated, or no praise.
After receiving their marks, the children were given their choice of a second picture to copy. Children were told the easier picture meant they “won’t learn too much.” The harder one, however, meant “you might make many mistakes, but you'll definitely learn a lot too.”
The children with low self-esteem who received inflated praise were the least likely to choose the more challenging assignment. In contrast, kids with high self-esteem who received inflated praise were most likely to attempt to draw the difficult picture.
Researchers say this is how praise backfires: children with low self-esteem may purposely avoid a harder task because of pressures to do as well as they did the previous time.
“If you tell a child with low self-esteem that they did incredibly well, they may think they always need to do incredibly well,” Bushman said. “They may worry about meeting those high standards and decide not to take on any new challenges.”
The Bottom Line for Parents
Bushman said the take-away is that parents should fight the natural urge to overly praise a child with low self-esteem because of the difficulties it could create for them.
“It goes against what many people may believe would be most helpful,” Bushman said. “But it really isn't helpful to give inflated praise to children who already feel bad about themselves.”