The Praise Paradox

“When twelve-year-old Linda arrived at the third level of her videogame, her father exclaimed, ‘You’re great! You have perfect coordination! You’re an expert player.’ Linda lost interest and walked away. Her father’s praise made it difficult for her to continue because she said to herself, ‘Dad thinks I’m a great player, but I’m no expert. I made the third level by luck. If I try again, I may not even make the second level. It is better to quit while I’m ahead.’”  –  Haim Ginott, Alice Ginott, and Wallace Goddard, Between Parent and Child

At this very moment, probably thousands of parents and teachers around the world are praising children. Like Linda’s father, they are showering children with positive evaluations such as, “You’re great! You have perfect coordination! You’re an expert player.”

We’ve been told for decades—by experts, magazines, and self-help books—that praise makes children feel good about themselves and motivates them to perform to their potential. The Center for Parenting Education states, “One of the most common and effective ways to build children’s self-esteem is to praise them.” A self-esteem expert recommends, “Be generous with your praise. Find as many opportunities to sincerely praise your children as you can.”

But does praise actually raise children’s self-esteem and motivation? Psychological research shows that it depends on how we phrase our praise. Some forms of praise help children value themselves, embrace challenges, and persist in the face of setbacks. But other forms of praise make children devalue themselves, shy away from challenges, and crumble in the face of setbacks. In this article, I will provide a framework that can help us praise more effectively.

Some forms of praise help children value themselves, embrace challenges, and persist in the face of setbacks. But other forms of praise make children devalue themselves, shy away from challenges, and crumble in the face of setbacks.

Praising ability vs. praising effort

When we want to raise children’s self-esteem, we may feel inclined to praise their abilities. A poll from the 1990s shows that 85 percent of parents believe that praising children’s abilities is necessary to make them feel smart. But such ability praise contains a hidden message. When we tell children that they’re smart, they infer that being smart is what counts. And when success means that they’re smart, failure means that they’re not—and that’s deeply frightening to them.

A colleague of mine was playing a board game with his daughter, who had never played the game before. With a good bit of luck, she won—and her father said: “You’re so talented!” They played again the next day, but this time she lost. She couldn’t hold back her tears and asked, “Dad, did I just lose my talent?”

In studies by Carol Dweck of Stanford University, children worked on challenging problems and were then praised for their smartness (“You must be smart at these problems”) or their effort and strategies (“You must have worked hard at these problems”). When children were praised for their smartness, they became concerned about how their performance reflected on them. In an attempt to continue to look smart, they preferred easy over hard problems. When they hit a setback, they inferred that they didn’t have what it takes. They gave up and performed poorly.

In sharp contrast, when children were praised for their effort and strategies, they focused on learning and improving themselves. In an attempt to grow their abilities, they preferred hard over easy problems. When they hit a setback, they didn’t question their abilities; rather, they inferred that they simply didn’t work hard enough or didn’t use the right strategies. They tried again and stepped up their performance. Thus, praising children for their effort and strategies helps them thrive on challenges.

When children are praised for being smart, they may become so afraid of losing their “smart” label that they are willing to cheat to maintain it. In a recent study by Li Zhao of Hangzhou Normal University, children played a guessing game. After doing well, the experimenter told them that they were smart (“You are so smart”) or that they performed well (“You did very well this time”). Children continued to play the game, but the experimenter left the room after telling them not to cheat by peeking at the answers.

Children who were told that they were smart were about 20 percent more likely to peek at the answers. The praise put pressure on them to prove that they’re smart. As psychologist and educator Richard Farson put it:

“Undoubtedly, the most threatening aspect of praise is the obligation it puts on us to be praise-worthy people. … For if we really believe it when we are told that we are competent, or intelligent, or beautiful, then we are continually on the spot to be competent, or intelligent, or beautiful.”

Every time we praise children, we’re sending them a message about what we value and what we expect.

The trouble with inflated praise

When we seek to raise children’s self-esteem, we often inflate our praise. Instead of telling children that they made a nice drawing, we tell them that they made an amazing drawing. And instead of telling children that they did well, we tell them that they did incredibly well. But such inflated praise can backfire. When we tell children that they did incredibly well, they may infer that they should do incredibly well all the time. As struggles and setbacks are inevitable, children may continuously fall short of the standards set for them, and feel down about themselves.

A teacher told me about a boy in her class, whose mother gives him lots of inflated praise. One day, as the boy was making a drawing, he took a close look at his own drawing, then at the other children’s drawings, and said, “I’m not an amazing drawer… My mom tells me I am, but I know others are better than me.”

In a recent study, my colleagues and I investigated how parents’ inflated praise shapes children’s self-esteem. It’s hard to learn how parents praise just by asking them: Doling out praise has become such a habit for them that they often do it unknowingly. So rather than asking them, we conducted in-home observations of their interactions with their child.

Unsurprisingly, parents gave more inflated praise to those who seemed to need it the most: children with lower levels of self-esteem. But parents’ efforts were unsuccessful. Rather than raising self-esteem, inflated praise predicted lower self-esteem in children over time. In fact, the more parents gave inflated praise, the lower the child’s self-esteem, even 18 months later.

By contrast, parents’ modestly positive, noninflated praise did not predict lower self-esteem in children. Rather than pressuring children to attain the unattainable, such praise sets realistic standards for them, protecting their self-esteem.

Rules and Cautions

Every time we praise children, we’re sending them a message about what we value and what we expect. As one expert put it, “The most notable aspect of a positive judgment is not that it is positive but that it is a judgment.” We have to be mindful of the message we’re sending. Before we dole out praise, let’s take a step back and ask: Do we want to teach children either that it’s all about being smart or that they can grow and expand their abilities? And do we want to convey to them either that they should perform incredibly well all the time or that they can strive for realistic standards? Psychologist and educator Haim Ginott reminds us:

“Praise, like penicillin, must not be administered haphazardly. There are rules and cautions that govern the handling of potent medicines—rules about timing and dosage, cautions about possible allergic reactions. There are similar regulations about the administration of emotional medicine.”

Author’s note:  The writing of this article was supported by funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No 705217.