Praise them!

Everyone thinks that too much praise can turn children into entitled monsters but the science isn’t nearly that simple

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In praise of praise. Photo by Luca Zordan/Gallery Stock

In praise of praise. Photo by Luca Zordan/Gallery Stock

Carlin Flora is a journalist and former features editor at Psychology Today. Her work has appeared in Discover and Scientific American Mind, among others. She is the author of Friendfluence (2013).

When I took my son to visit my parents in South Carolina six months ago, my father yelled out ‘Good job!’ after I finished rinsing some dishes one night. It was a running joke at my expense – I had earlier exclaimed ‘Good job!’ when my son ate a handful of blueberries, and then again later that evening when he leaned forward and, after a brief struggle, pulled off his own sock. He was eighteen months old at the time.

Sure, I knew the drill: Generation Y had been turned into a challenged group of narcissists and entitled praise-junkies by parents who called them proto-Picassos and Einsteins. So what? I bestow a lot of praise on my child and I’m not ashamed. I’m proud to point out how talented he is when he bangs away on his mini-bongos or scribbles on the walls with his crayons. I want to express my genuine delight and affection for my toddler as he makes his tiny strides forward. My own parents rolling their eyes won’t stop me.

What do we really know about praise? Some findings and a dollop of advice come from the biological anthropologist Gwen Dewar’s Parenting Science, a website for people like me: when we praise children for ability rather than effort they come to view talent and intelligence as givens, not skills to be cultivated and learned. Insincere praise could send the message that parents don’t understand their child. And praise that merely casts a judgment –‘Good job!’– is less effective than specific compliments pointing out what the child has done right.

Over-praising children (You’re amazing!) can make them feel your standards are very high, causing the fear that they won’t be able to keep living up to them, say the psychologists Jennifer Henderlong Corpus of Reed College and Mark Lepper of Stanford. Praising them for easy tasks can make children suspect that you are dumb (don’t you know how easy this is?) or that you think they are dumb. Here’s an especially tricky finding: praising them for things they naturally enjoy can backfire if you do it too much, sapping motivation instead of urging the child on.

Doing it all wrong, I was a worthy recipient of this self-professed rant by the University of San Francisco psychologist Jim Taylor: ‘Good job? Well, it’s lazy praise, it’s worthless praise, it’s harmful praise… If you’re going to be lazy with your praise, at least say Good effort! because it focuses them on what they did to do a good job… The reality is that children don’t need to be told Good job! when they have done something well; it’s self-evident… Particularly with young children, you don’t need to praise them at all.’

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But were the praise critics right? The first wrinkle in such harsh critiques is that praise affects small kids and big kids differently. For instance, a 2007 study led by Paul Hastings, now at the University of California, Davis, found that parents who praise their preschoolers for good manners have kids with better social skills, contradicting Taylor’s belief that preschoolers don’t need praise at all. Another study, published in 1997 and led by Sue Kelley at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania, found that two-year-olds who were encouraged by their mothers to explore on their own in a lab experiment were more independent a year later than those whose mothers didn’t praise them in the first study.

As for effusive overpraising, Ellen Winner of Boston College and others have found that younger children (under the age of seven or so) are not sophisticated enough to doubt a mother or father’s sincerity, meaning they likely wouldn’t run into the ‘too-high standards’ problem that older kids might.

The second wrinkle in the anti-praise argument is more nuanced and difficult to grasp. A study published this year from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and led by Eddie Brummelman, a PhD candidate in developmental psychology, shows that, indeed, overpraise (That’s incredibly beautiful! versus That’s nice!) can be harmful for children with low-esteem, but be helpful for those with high self-esteem.

children with high self-esteem who received inflated praise were more likely to choose the challenging task

First, the study confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that parents would be more likely to overpraise children with low self-esteem than those with high self-esteem. Then they had children between the ages of eight and 12, all previously rated for self-esteem, visit an art museum. The children were asked to paint pictures, which were then critiqued by a supposed ‘professional painter’. As a final step, they were asked whether they wanted to attempt a second, more difficult drawing exercise or a relatively easy one. All children receiving inflated praise viewed that praise as sincere, regardless of their level of self-esteem. Yet as predicted, children with low self-esteem who received inflated praise were less likely to accept the difficult challenge than their counterparts who received non-inflated praise. On the other hand, children with high self-esteem who received inflated praise were more likely to choose the challenging task than their counterparts who received non-inflated praise.

It makes sense, since people with high self-esteem are generally self-promoting and seek out situations to demonstrate their abilities, while those with low self-esteem are afraid of failure and avoid situations that might reveal their worthlessness.

The authors write: ‘Thus, inflated praise can cause children with low self-esteem to avoid crucial learning experiences – a process that may eventually undermine their learning and performance.’ Here’s the complicated flip-side, though: ‘Non-inflated praise may reduce fear of failure for children with low self-esteem and thus foster their challenge-seeking, but it might fail to provide sufficient impetus to seek challenges for children with high self-esteem.’

Yet do parents really know whether their children have low or high self-esteem? If not, should they get an assessment, and add or subtract flattering adjectives accordingly? I certainly don’t know how my two-year-old feels about himself, and for good reason. The authors write: ‘Although young children have a rudimentary sense of “goodness” or “badness”, only from late childhood can children form and express self-esteem.’ If my son is merely able to form a concept of either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, I’m glad I’ve been praising him so much… perhaps I’m now fostering the self-esteem that, later on, such tests will measure.

I posed the possibility to Brummelman. He said that this experiment hadn’t been done, but he tended to agree, speculating that ‘inflated praise might not be harmful and could even be helpful in early childhood because young children typically hold unrealistically positive expectations for future performance. When they receive inflated praise, they might perhaps feel able to meet the high standards set for them, and thus seek more challenges.’

So my son likely has positive expectations for future performance – good! I hope he continues along those lines. I myself took another path: once I left my parents’ house for college, my cheeks would start burning as soon as I raised my hand to speak in class. So I didn’t raise it much. The blushing continued when bosses addressed me directly throughout my 20s. I wish I’d had better self-esteem. I’ve known people whose confidence has outstripped their knowledge or intelligence, and I’m not sure that it’s really hurt them in life. A study led last year by Jessica Kennedy, then at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, found that people who project confidence, even when they don’t perform well at the task in question, are perceived by others to be skilled and also of higher social status on average. Some complain that too many people are overconfident these days, but it seems to be working for them.

‘The child determines how parents behave. There is a complex feedback loop in which biology and behaviour are intertwined’

I’m also not convinced that the source of my self-esteem deficit was anything my parents did or didn’t do. So why should I fear ruining my son? Other adults are raising him too, as well as other children and peers, plus he’s raising himself, and all of this is occurring in a world in constant flux. And here’s where the third wrinkle in the anti-praise argument appears: worrying about one’s own behaviour as a parent reflects a misunderstanding about the many influences at work on a child’s development. Parenting is a two-way dynamic, one influenced by the environment and genes of both the parent and the child. In fact, a meta-study by Ashlea Klahr and colleagues at Michigan State University published in Psychological Bulletin in 2014 found that genetic influences account for anywhere from 23 per cent to 40 per cent of the variance among three basic measures of parenting behaviours: warmth, control, and negativity, each associated with such future outcomes as antisocial behaviour, anxiety, and substance abuse. Warmth, as you’d imagine, is a big predictor of good outcomes (lower rates of behavioural problems, anxiety or depression, and more academic readiness and success) and includes verbal expression of affection. This is some of the strongest evidence yet that genes play a big role in parenting behaviour and in the child that results.

Most striking, however, was the evidence found to support how a child’s own characteristics affect a parent’s style – in other words, beyond the influence of genes, the child him or herself determines how the parent behaves. This is a complex feedback loop in which biology and behaviour are intertwined, and it is different for each parent and child.

It’s an argument for an individualised approach. ‘You should think about your own characteristics, and the things that bother you, and then develop a parenting style and strategy that fits both you and your child,’ Klahr told me. ‘If you’re trying to do something that doesn’t feel natural to you as a parent, it’s going to be difficult and make the process more stressful for you. We know of some things for certain that are good for children, and some things that are bad, but there is a lot of room in the middle for individual differences.’

Especially if you see praise as a motivator for healthy change, Klahr suggests tracking how you’re doing in terms of eliciting positive behaviours from your child and even writing it down to analyse what’s working and what’s not working. ‘Conduct a mini study in your own family,’ she said.

Which is exactly what the New York University sociology professor Dalton Conley chronicles in his funny book Parentology (2014). After he spent years bribing his son and daughter with gummy bears, video-game time and cash to get them to do additional math problems, his daughter got more and more into reading and literature, and less interested in mathematics, while his son stopped reading fiction and researched fractals in his own time. ‘Thus, I had plied one academic arena (math) with extrinsic rewards and left another (reading) devoid of such contamination, but in the end, the presence or absence of a reward system did little to affect their passion for the subject matter.’ In other words, the praise heaped on one child will have a different effect on another, depending on their interests, their personalities, the parent’s interests and the parent’s personalities, among other factors.

‘We’d never want to say praise is bad,’ Klahr said. ‘We want parents to praise. We know that positive reinforcement – noticing and praising good behaviour – leads to optimal outcomes, and that harsh, unpredictable discipline leads to increased rates of behavioural problems, parent-child conflict, and depression.’

So the idea that praise or lack of it alone can help your child succeed is overblown. Instead, the Cornell University child psychologist Kenneth Barish insists that the real problem is criticism. ‘I have met many discouraged, angry, and unhappy children. I have met demoralised kids who were unable to sustain effort when they encountered even mild frustration or disappointment, and others who had developed attitudes of entitlement. And the culprit is not praise, but criticism. Most of these children were over-criticised; very few were overpraised.’

The backlash against overblown self-esteem gained strength because it showed that it was counterproductive: coddled kids who were always applauded grew up not knowing how to self-correct their behaviour, not knowing how to deal with rejection and failure. They lacked grit, and grit, researchers now say, is the real key to success. But how am I to raise my son in a way that will put the odds of success in his favour when I don’t know what will be needed in our rapidly changing world?

I grew up playing classical violin and studying diligently. I went to a great university and grad school, and have worried quite a bit about the future for as long as I can remember. My husband took school very lightly, played music and composed it without being bothered by the fact that he doesn’t know how to read notes, went to art school in lieu of a university, and has long had an abiding sense that he is a lucky person whose future will work out well, no matter what. We’ve both had disappointments and triumphs and, as far as I can mentally compile all the factors one might use to judge success, I’d say our prospects for worldly success are roughly the same. Which of us should be my son’s role model? The fact that he is a ‘he’ might hold some weight. Following mine and my husband's pattern, men generally estimate their abilities to be higher than women do, even in experiments where their actual abilities are about the same. Yet girls are more socialised, helped by the world at large. My son might need extra praise to acquire good manners, but still end up more sure of himself than his female peers whether I praise him or not.

‘the only way you can go wrong with praising a toddler is if you say Good job! after they’ve done something you don’t want them to do’

All this data sheds some light. I resolve to be more specific in my praise from now on, and to point out my son’s effort in defiling the furniture rather than his natural flair for choosing interesting crayon colours with which to do so. But the walls are his. For now I’ll let him watch cartoons, put a cookie in his outstretched hand and watch the slow progression of his smile into full jack-o’-lantern, admire his concentration as he colours, and praise him when he’s done.

‘Of all the things that could go wrong,’ Khlar said, ‘overpraising is not something parents should be stressed out about. Really, the only way you can go wrong with praising a toddler is if you say “Good job!” after they’ve done something you don’t want them to do.’

Don’t most children turn out fine? Won’t my son figure out that walls are not to be coloured on someday, no matter what I do or don’t do now? Let me bask in gratitude for my little boy, who, after all, might have died or could die at any moment (ever-present awareness of that fact is the maternal instinct). I’d at least like to fatten him up, emotionally speaking, before the cruel world starts to eat away at him.

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    Put it another way: if you want to use science to answer questions of daily life, you'll wind up as a stupid jungle beast... since science can only view the human being as an animal.

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