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The Pitfalls of Praising Your Kids

Genuinely praise your children and see self-confidence bloom

Published on: October 21, 2016

celebrating an achievement

Have you ever noticed that parenting trends are like nutrition and health advice? First, there is the next big discovery, and then uh oh, we find out that there are kinks in the argument. Self-esteem was the end-all and be-all of the '80s, and then it was teaching to the learning style of the child. (Perhaps you didn’t know we were way over those big deals?) Unfortunately, parents often read about the exciting new sensations and then miss the less exciting analysis that follows months or even years later that exposes the flies in the ointment. In this seven-part series — this being the third installment — I’ll revisit common ideas about parenting that have been distorted, misinterpreted or oversimplified and give you the latest information. Here’s the latest:

Parenting myth no. 3: Overpraise causes narcissism.

Overpraise is bad for kids. We’ve known this fact for a long time. But once again, parents are hearing so much about this problem that they are getting the idea that all praise is bad for kids. Only a small fraction of experts believe this, but Alfie Kohn is a powerful proponent.

The problems with overpraise have been described widely. As a 2015 study published in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences indicated, overvaluation and praise of children can result in greater narcissism. In 2007, Carol Dweck listed the problems in an article published in Educational Leadership, which described how praising smarts instead of effort crushed motivation (more on this later).

Kids can detect fakes. Either they must really be losers to elicit such patronizing, or you are a liar. Both are bad options.

The many studies about the negative effects of overpraise (and inauthentic praise) put an end to the vacuous self-esteem movement. It was once thought that you could fill a child’s empty self-worth cup by pouring copious amounts of generic praise into it. Enthusiasts had it backward: Self-esteem follows substantive effort and mastery. It’s not as simple as admiring failing students, creating a “feel good” and immediately transforming them into class scholars.

Showering kids with inflated praise intimidates kids (and adults!). When people tell us we are super spectacular, all we can think about is how it isn’t true. Most of us are aware of our shortcomings, so when people overshoot the mark in praising us, we know the compliments are bogus.

Especially when kids are struggling, overpraise can actually trigger a sense of shame or even distrust because kids will wonder why you are trying to pump them up with inaccurate compliments. Kids can detect fakes. Either they must really be losers to elicit such patronizing, or you are a liar. Both are bad options.

So what kind of praise is good for kids? Jennifer Corpus and Mark Lepper have analyzed 30 years of studies on the effects of praise. They found that praise can be a positive motivator when it is specific, sincere, focused on things that the child had the power to change, occurs in small doses, targets areas that take effort but not so much it makes tasks overwhelming, avoids areas that children already love intrinsically, and encourage independence.

In my most recent book about parenting the 3- to 7- year old, I summed up the good ingredients of praise with the acronym of GOLD: Genuine, Occasional, Limited and specific, Decent effort. The brain perks up when it encounters a surprise goody. If a parent is constantly spouting “Good job!” or “Terrific!” or “You’re the best” (or even “I love you”), the child ceases to attend. It doesn’t mean much. With overuse, you don’t have GOLD for when Johnny restrains his impulse to hit his sister and instead puts his feelings into words.

The takeaway

Praise is an art and a science, like so many tools in the parenting toolbox. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. We should praise with thoughtfulness and precision. Attuned parenting means you pick the right moment to acknowledge and appreciate your child’s effort, while avoiding effusiveness so that you can instead resonate with the child’s own pride.

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