Nov 22, The effects of praise: 7 evidence-based tips for praising kids the right way

The effects of praise:

7 evidence-based tips for praising kids the right way

© 2008 - 2017 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

The effects of praise aren't always good. What can we do to make sure praise helps, and doesn't hurt?

In many traditional cultures, parents avoid showering their children praise. They worry that too much praise will inflate the ego. Make kids overconfident. Too full of themselves.

This seems to be an ancient concern. Modern-day hunter-gatherers--people whose life-ways most closely resemble those of our ancestors--are famously intolerant of big egos.

It used to be that way in the West, too. But today things are different. Westerners praise each other all the time, and lavish praise on their kids. They believe praise is going to make children  better--more motivated, more confident, more inclined to tackle challenges.

Does it really work that way?

In some cases, yes.

For instance, there are hints that preschoolers develop better social skills when we praise them for displaying good manners (Garner 2006; Hastings et al 2007).

And experiments show that certain kinds of praise don't just make children happier. They also increase a child's persistence and resilience (Morris and Zentall 2014). 

But it's not all good. Studies suggest that some types of praise can actually undermine your child's motivation. Depending on the circumstances, praise can damage a child's self esteem, or fuel the development of narcissism (Brummelman et al 2017).

So what's the right way to praise kids?

Good answers come from Jennifer Henderlong Corpus and Mark Lepper, psychologists who analyzed over 30 years of studies on the effects of praise (Henderlong and Lepper 2002). They determined that praise can be a powerful motivating force if you follow these guidelines:

  • Be sincere and specific when praising a child's performance
  • Praise children only for traits they have the power to change
  • Use descriptive praise that conveys realistic, attainable standards
  • Be careful about praising kids for achievements that come easily
  • Be careful about praising kids for doing what they already love to do
  • Encourage kids to focus on mastering skills–not on comparing themselves to others

In addition, subsequent research suggests that vague, positive praise -- that merely communicates your happiness or congratulations -- has a beneficial effect (Morris and Zentall 2014).

There is also evidence that we should avoid extravagant, overly-positive, inflated praise. On the one hand, it may make kids feel pressured to reach unattainable goals, setting them up for failure and a blow to their self-esteem. On the other hand, it may put some children -- particularly those with high self-esteem -- at risk for developing narcissism (Brummelman et al 2017).

Finally, it's clear that a child's age matters. Children respond differently to praise depending on their developmental level. 

I explain these guidelines in more detail below. Here is a discussion of the varied effects of praise are seven tips for using praise the right way -- based on decades of research int

1. Be sensitive to your child's developmental level

Babies and toddlers benefit from praise that encourages them to explore on their own.

In a study of 24-month old children, researchers watched mothers and toddlers while the children were engaged in a challenging task. What did mothers say and do? 

One year later, the families were observed once again under similar conditions.

The researchers found that the 36-month old kids who were most likely to tackle challenges–and to persist at a task–were the ones whose mothers had praised and encouraged their independence at 24 months (Kelley et al 2000).

Older kids are more sophisticated, and may interpret your praise in negative ways

Whereas very young children are likely to take your praise at face value, older kids are a different story. As kids mature, they become aware of your own possible motives for praising them. If they perceive you to be insincere, they may dismiss your praise. They may also be sensitive to being patronized or manipulated.

2. Be sincere

Insincere praise may harm self-esteem and damage relationships

Obviously, kids won't feel very encouraged by praise if you seem insincere.

But insincere praise isn't just ineffective. It can be damaging.

Kids might think you feel sorry for them or that you are trying to be manipulative. Insincere praise might also send the message that you don't really understand your child (Henderlong and Lepper 2002).

And even if kids believe in your sincerity, your inflated, over-the-top praise can make them wary about accepting challenges. What if next time they can live up to this high standard? Experiments suggest that children with low self esteem are prone to this effect (Brummelman et al 2014). And when researchers  have tracked children over time, they've found links between inflated praise and the development of low self-esteem (Brummelman et al 2017).

Do these problems arise for very young children? Probably not. But once your child becomes mature enough to question your motives, she may become sensitive to the effects of insincere praise.

3. Be specific
Praising kids for specific tactics offers them a blueprint for succeeding again

When we lavish a child with inflated praise, we don't just set him up for maintaining an impossible standard. How can he ever beat that? We also rob him of helpful, specific feedback.

So instead of telling your child she just wrote the best essay in the history of the world, ratchet things down, and get specific about what aspects of her work were successful. "I like the way you begin your essay by describing the problem and explaining why it's important."

This sort of descriptive praise doesn't just make kids feel good. It also helps them learn how to repeat a strong performance in the future (Corpus and Lepper 2002).

4. Praise kids for traits they have the power to change

It might seem that praising your child's intelligence or talent would boost his self-esteem and motivate him.

But it turns out that this sort of praise backfires.

Carol Dweck and her colleagues have demonstrated the effect in a series of experimental studies: When we praise kids for their ability, kids become more cautious. They avoid challenges.

It's as if they are afraid to do anything that might make them fail and lose your high appraisal.

Kids might also get the message that intelligence or talent is something that people either have or don’t have. This leaves kids feeling helpless when they make mistakes. What’s the point of trying to improve if your mistakes indicate that you lack intelligence?

For these reasons, it's better to avoid praising kids for ability. Instead, praise them for things that they can clearly change–like their level of effort or the strategies they use. For more information on the effects of praise on intellectual performance, click here.

5. Beware of praising kids for achievements that come easily

If you praise kids for easy tasks, kids may conclude there is something wrong: Either you’re too dumb to realize how easy the task is, or you think the kids are dumb (Meyer 1992).

Such interpretations are unlikely to occur to younger children. But as kids mature, they become more sophisticated about the social meaning of praise.

One experiment presented American kids (aged 4 to 12 years) with a videotaped scenario depicting students at work. The scenario showed two students solving a problem. Each performed equally well, but only one student was praised.

The kids who watched the program were asked to judge the students’ effort and ability.

Kids of all ages agreed that the praised student tried harder. But the older kids also inferred that the praised student had lower ability (Barker and Graham 1987).

These reactions might be culturally specific, however. When a similar experiment was conducted on Chinese students, older subjects did not conclude that the praised person was inferior in ability (Salili and Hau 1994).

The difference might reflect Chinese attitudes about praise and intelligence.

In China, praise is rarely given (Salili and Hau 1994). As a result, people may be less likely to infer that praise is insincere or patronizing. In addition, Chinese people are more inclined to view intellectual achievements as a product of effort (Salili and Hau 1994; Stevenson and Lee 1990).

6. Beware of over-praising kids for doing things they like anyway

It's okay to praise kids for doing what they like to do. But be careful not to go overboard–particularly with older kids. When you praise kids every time they do something they enjoy, it might actually reduce their motivation (Henderlong and Lepper 2002).

For example, suppose that Adam loves to eat broccoli. But every time he eats broccoli, his mom praises him for it. Consciously or unconsciously, Adam starts to question his motivation. Is he eating broccoli only for the praise? Adam changes his attitude toward broccoli-eating. It’s a chore, not a pleasure. If the praise ends, Adam loses interest in eating broccoli.

Does this sort of thing really happen? It’s been well-documented in cases where people are given tangible rewards each time they perform a particular behavior (e.g., giving your child some money each time he eats broccoli). The feedback appears to re-set a person’s attitude (Lepper and Henderlong 2000).

There’s less research showing that social rewards–like praise–can produce the same effect. However, a recent brain study reveals that social rewards (like praise) and tangible rewards (like money) activate the same regions of the brain (Izuma et al 2008). And a food-tasting experiment performed on children found that praise, like tangible rewards, made kids like a food less (Birch et al 1984).

But the key point seems to be that praise must be given every time, so that kids expect to be praised for the behavior.

When praise is unexpected or spontaneous, it remains a powerful motivating force.

So this doesn't mean we shouldn't praise children for good behavior or a job well done. But it suggests we should be cautious about overriding our kids’ natural sources of motivation.

7. Avoid praise that compares your child to others

At first blush, it might seem like a good idea to praise kids for out-performing their peers. After all, research has shown that such social-comparison praise enhances a child’s motivation and enjoyment of a task (see review in Henderlong and Lepper 2002).

But there are at least two big problems with social-comparison praise.

Problem #1: Social-comparison praise is only motivating as long as kids continue to finish first.

If their competitive edge slips, kids are likely to lose motivation.

In essence, kids who are accustomed to social-comparison praise become poor losers.

Consider this experiment on American 4th and 5th graders (Corpus et al 2006). Kids were given a set of puzzles to complete and received either

  • social-comparison praise
  • mastery praise (i.e., comments about how the child had mastered the task), or
  • no praise at all

Next, kids completed a second task. This time they were left without clear feedback about how they’d done.

How did this uncertainty affect each child’s motivation?

It depended on what kind of praise kids had received earlier. Those who had received social comparison praise suffered a loss of motivation. But kids who had received mastery praise showed enhanced motivation.

In other words, a history of social-comparison praise backfires the minute kids stop hearing that they’ve outperformed their peers.

Problem #2: Social-comparison praise teaches kids that competitive standing, not mastery, is the goal.

When kids decide that the goal is to outperform other kids, they lack intrinsic motivation for a task. Work is only interesting insofar as it permits them to show that they are the best.

Even worse, these kids are so wrapped up in maintaining their competitive standing that they avoid challenges and opportunities to learn. Why tackle something new and risk failure? Social-comparison praise doesn’t prepare kids for coping with failure. Instead of trying to learn from their mistakes, these kids respond by feeling helpless (Elliot and Dweck 1988).

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