When Praising Your Kids Can Be Harmful

Conscientious parents are obsessed these days with heaping praise on their children. Better to err on the side of too much, seems to be the common wisdom. Certainly for the current generation of children who are fortunate enough to grow up in loving homes, there is a much richer backdrop of praise to their daily life that what their parents typically grew up with.

So, it is sobering to read How Not to Talk to Your Kids from the New York magazine (link via Mind Hacks – together with some commentary). It seems that not just the quantity, but also the content of the praise we give our kids can be important – sometimes praise can be detrimental

A recent study compared the effects of praising children for their intelligence versus praising them for their their effort. Those praised for their effort seemed to respond better, both to challenge and to failure, whilst those praised for their intelligence dealt poorly with pressure and failed to bounce back after failure. They key seems to be that effort is a variable the child can control, whereas the sense of intelligence can be undermined.

In fact, the whole edifice of “self-esteem” is now under challenge, with the link between it and achievement being seriously challenged by a number of studies and a re-evaluation of exisiting research. Not only do children potentially filter out excessive and non-specific praise, but it can actually make them more risk-averse and dependent on parental or teacher reinforcement.

“In the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, a teacher who praises a child may be unwittingly sending the message that the student reached the limit of his innate ability, while a teacher who criticizes a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further.”

If we look away from the educational research for a moment, there is something we can learn from the biographies of successful and creative people through history. Feelings of personal esteem, confidence and worth can fluctuate, often dramatically. But consistent performance is usually the result of consistent effort and craft. Perhaps as parents we should focus more on the child’s self-persistence, than their self-esteem?

“Cloninger has trained rats and mice in mazes to have persistence by carefully not rewarding them when they get to the finish. ‚ÄúThe key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”

In some ways the greatest challenge rests with the parent, with their needs to express their praise and love. As the article suggests a few times, the high levels of praise may well reflect more of the parent’s need to assuaged in their choices and expectations than the child’s needs to flourish as a growing person.

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  • Toni - 21st February 2007

    This is a good formal recognition of the self evident. That we (we including our children) need to strive and be encouraged in that striving to achieve, rather than just simply to be. It is simply so much more helpful to be both praised for what we’ve done and also be informed of how our failures can be turned around than to simply be told how wonderful we are.

    I wonder if this is a facet of the playstation/TV generation. They know they’re intelligent, so there’s no need to actually *try* in practical areas.

  • Fernando Gros - 4th March 2007

    Toni it is perhaps telling that as I’ve discussed this with some fellow parents, it’s been apparent that many praise their kids attributes rather than effort (almost to the exclusion of it).

    I’ve also become aware that my daughter has picked up in the playground the phrase “so easy” to describe things she does well. This week I found myself having the first serious chat with her (shes five) about how Papa’s guitar playing is not at all easy…

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In his Tokyo studio Fernando combines his life-long passions for art and technology. On the road, he is always looking to take the next wrong turn, just to see what kind of images and stories might unfold. A photographer & writer, with a background in music, Fernando has lived in Chile, Australia, the UK, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. Read More.


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