Exaggerated Praise Not Good for kids
January 2, 2014

Inflated Praise May Do More Harm Than Good

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Parents may need to hold off on giving their child too much praise because stroking an ego that much may do more harm than good says a new study. Researchers found that parents who give inflated praise to a child with low self esteem may actually be setting that child up to achieve less. The team said that children with high self-esteem who are constantly lauded thrive, but those with lower self-esteem tend to run away from new challenges.

“Inflated praise can backfire with those kids who seem to need it the most – kids with low self-esteem,” said Eddie Brummelman, lead author of the study which was published in the journal Psychological Science.

Brummelman, who is a doctoral student in psychology at Utrecht University in The Netherlands, said this was the first study to look at the impact of inflated praise.

During the study, the researchers characterized inflated praise as involving the addition of one additional word, such as doing a task “incredibly perfect.” Phrases like “you are good at this” were considered simple, but parents who said “you’re incredibly good at this” were placed in the 'inflated praisers' category.

The study included 114 parents, 88 percent of whom were mothers. The parents participated in the study with their child, and before the study began the researchers used a test to determine the child’s self-esteem.

Parents administered 12 math exercises to their child for the study, and afterwards they scored how well their child did on the tests. The sessions were videotaped, and the researchers used these recordings to count how many times the parents praised their child.

The team found that adults gave twice as much inflated praise to children identified as having low self-esteem compared to those children with high self-esteem. The most common inflated praise statements included “You answered very fast!” and “Super good!” and “Fantastic!” The most common non-inflated praise statements were “You’re good at this” and “Well done!”

According to the study, parents praised their children an average of six times during the session, and about 25 percent of that praise was inflated.

“Parents seemed to think that the children with low self-esteem needed to get extra praise to make them feel better,” said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State. “It’s understandable why adults would do that, but we found in another experiment that this inflated praise can backfire in these children.”

In another experiment, 240 children were asked to draw a famous Vincent van Gogh painting and then received praise in the form of a note from someone identified as a professional painter. After the child received the note they were told to draw copies of other pictures that they could choose from. The children were given the option to either choose from pictures that were easy to do, or they could choose to draw more difficult pictures.

The team found after the second experiment that children with low self-esteem were more likely to choose the easier pictures if they received inflated praise in the note. Children with higher self-esteem were more likely to choose the more difficult pictures if they received inflated praise. Brummelman said children with low self-esteem may have shot for the easier challenge because they worry about meeting those high standards and decided not to take on any new challenges.

Bushman said the lesson could be that parents and adults need to fight the urge to give inflated praise to children with low self-esteem.

“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.”