Inflated praise can deflate kids with low self-esteem

low self esteem But such inflated compliments have the opposite effect on kids who are less confident, according research published Jan. 16 in the journal Psychological Science.

In a series of three studies, researchers found that well-meaning adults and parents often bestow exaggerated praise on youngsters who have low self-esteem with the intent of boosting the children’s confidence. But in many cases the result is the opposite: The puffery puts pressure on the children to achieve unrealistically high standards, causing fear and anxiety about taking on 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 and visiting scholar at The Ohio State University. He is also a doctoral student in psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

About the studies

For these studies, researchers defined inflated praise as a compliment boosted by an added adverb or adjective. For example, “You’re good at this” was considered simple praise, whereas “You’re incredibly good at this” was pegged as inflated.

The first two studies examined how adults use praise when they are aware of children’s self-esteem. One study involved 712 adults, most of whom were women. They read six short descriptions of hypothetical kids: three with high self-esteem and three with low self-esteem. The adults then read how well a child performed in some task, such as drawing, solving a mathematical problem or playing an instrument. The adults were asked to write down how they would praise each child.

On average, 25 percent of the praise was inflated, and most of that inflated praise was bestowed on the kids described as having low self-esteem.

The second study involved 114 parents—88 percent of whom were mothers—observed in their homes with their children. The children were ages 7 to 11. Each child answered questions to assess his or her self-esteem. The parents then tested the children’s math skills and offered praise for performance. As with hypothetical children, the adults exaggerated praise for their own children with low self-esteem, regardless of performance.

A third study involved 240 children. Their self-esteem was measured using the same assessment as in the previous study. The children painted a picture and received written feedback from a person they thought was a professional artist. Some received simple praise, some received inflated praise and some received no praise at all.

After reading their notes, the children were asked to do more artwork. They could choose to copy an easy drawing or a more complex drawing. Children with low self-esteem whose first painting was overly praised tended to choose the easier drawing. Children with high self-esteem who received exaggerated praise tended to choose the difficult drawing.

The take-home message
Piling on puffed-up praises might put too much pressure on kids with low self-esteem.

“If you tell a child with low self-esteem that they did incredibly well, they may think they always need to do incredibly well,” said Brummelman. “They may worry about meeting those high standards and decide not to take on any new challenges.”

Praise is a popular motivator, the authors wrote, and many parents (and self-help books) encourage adults to lavish children with inflated praise. Based on their study’s findings, however, the authors recommend that adults save exaggerated compliments for kids with high self-esteem and keep praise simple for kids whose self-esteem is low.

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