Let us not praise our children: Well-intentioned puffery won't boost school success

Dumping praise on a student or your child with the intention of bolstering their scholastic success may actually hinder it. More and more studies are determining that children grow suspicious of general praise or develop an unhealthy fear of failure. 

Walker Evans/Wiki commons
Let us not praise our children, at least, not all the time for every little thing and especially when it's not appropriate, says Judy Bolton-Fasman. (Photo from 'Let Us Now Praise Famous Men' by James Agee.)

My name is Judy and I am a praise junkie. That is, I blanket my children with lavish compliments like, “You are the smartest, you are the best, you are second to none.” It turns out that I haven’t been doing my kids any favors with these endearments. In fact, there’s a raft of research over the past couple of decades that shows that unfocused praising of children puts a significant dent in their self-esteem.

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, has been at the vanguard of studies about kids and praise. Dweck’s research grew out of a pattern that has been tracked for over 20 years — gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) were very unsure of their academic abilities. This perceived lack of competence caused them to lower their standards for success and to underestimate the importance of putting in effort towards a goal.

But I’m not the only parent out there praising away. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s crucial to tell their kids how smart they are. My highly unscientific poll puts the number of fellow parental praise junkies out there at closer to 100 percent.

Why the constant praising and what do we do about it? I suppose we praise to reassure our kids and ourselves that they are not only wonderful, but also resilient — able to handle any challenge that comes their way. But in truth constant assurance has the opposite effect. The proof is on the ground. Ten years ago Dweck sent four research assistants into fifth-grade classrooms throughout New York City. The assistants administered a series of puzzles to two control groups randomly divided. The children in one group were praised for their intelligence as in “You must be smart at this.” The other group was lauded for their efforts as in, “You must have worked really hard.”

In the next round, the two groups were asked to choose between a difficult or easy test. The results were astounding. Ninety percent of the children who were praised for their efforts chose the harder test. The majority of kids praised for their intelligence chose the easier test. Commending a kid for his intelligence not only made him shy away from exerting effort, it also made him risk-averse.

The phenomenon of praising a child too often goes back to the 1969 publication of thePsychology of Self-Esteem. That landmark book asserted that high self-esteem was essential to a person’s well being. The notion trickled down to our kids; criticism was out and praise, even if it was undeserved, was now in vogue. I can remember soccer games that my children played when they were little where goals were not counted and every kid got a trophy. I was thrilled for my children, but was I and the other well-meaning adults around them doing the right thing by eliminating competition?

Dweck doesn’t think so. Her research has uncovered that high self-esteem is not necessarily connected to good grades or career success. It doesn’t reduce alcohol abuse or reduce violence. But Dweck isn’t advocating to jettison praise altogether. She found that fine-tuning praise, so that it’s specific and sincere, was very effective. To that end, her research further demonstrated that kids over 12 were suspicious of general praise from a teacher and took it as a sign that they weren’t doing well in class.

Fear of failure is another conundrum that results from overpraising. A well-meaning parent may gloss over a child’s failure by encouraging her to do better next time. The subtext of that message is that failure is so unacceptable it can’t be acknowledged. A lot of the psychology literature shows that responding to failure by trying harder instead of walking away from it suggests that there is more than willpower at work. Encouraging a child to do better next time can rewire a brain to respond more positively to failure. And a brain that learns to try harder instead of giving up is not as dependent on instant gratification. Nothing will short circuit the brain’s response to failure faster than frequent rewards—it’s a sure fire way to set up a kid’s brain for an actual addiction to constant incentives.

So what have I done about my own praise addiction? It seems to be less toxic than I thought.  My praise and criticism of my children’s performances in school has always been nuanced. But yes, in the long run I think almost everything they do is great. For example, the other day Anna asked me what I thought of an article she wrote for her college newspaper. I told her what I specifically liked about the piece. But I’m not completely cured. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she forgot to insert a couple of commas.

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