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The Over-Praise Dilemma: When Complimenting Kids Actually Holds Them Back

01/06/2014 04:16 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014
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"Amazing job!" "Perfect!" "What an incredibly beautiful drawing!"

Across playgrounds, schoolyards and classrooms, it is common to hear well-intentioned parents, caregivers and teachers heap high praise on children -- particularly those with low self-esteem.

But a new study suggests that when adults shower children with compliments to try to boost their self-esteem, it has the opposite effect, sending the message that they must continue to meet very high standards and discouraging them from taking on new, confidence-boosting challenges, lest they fail.

"Giving inflated praise is well-intended," study author Eddie Brummelman, a doctoral student in psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. "Yet, it can backfire in those children who seem to need such praise the most -- children with low self-esteem."

In the multipart study, which will be published in the journal Psychological Science, investigators asked more than 700 parents and teachers what they would say to a hypothetical child with either low or high self-esteem after he or she had drawn a picture or solved a math problem.

Twenty-five percent of the responses met the study's criteria for "inflated praise" -- meaning they included an adverb such as "incredibly" or a superlative.

The adults also heaped twice as much inflated praise on the children identified as having low self-esteem, suggesting that adults tend to overpraise nonconfident children in an effort to boost their sense of self.

In another experiment, 240 boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 12 completed a questionnaire measuring their self-esteem. They were then asked to draw a copy of a famous painting, which they were told would be critiqued by a professional artist. The "artist" wrote each child a note, either overpraising the drawing ("You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!"), praising it ("You made a beautiful drawing!") or not praising it at all.

Afterward, the children were asked to draw another picture, but this time they were given a choice of the image they wanted to copy. They were told that one image was easy to re-create but they would not learn much working on it, while the other was more difficult and they would surely make mistakes but would learn a lot in the process. The children with low self-esteem who initially received inflated praise were far more likely to choose the easier image.

"The idea is that children who have low self-esteem are more anxious about maintaining a high level of praise. They're less likely to believe that they'll be praised again when praise is excessive, so they start to choose easier tasks," explained Dr. Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University and a Chicago-based clinical psychologist, who did not work on the new study.

"In general, children with low self-esteem are more risk adverse because they fear failure," he continued. "This can be triggered by parents who use excessive praise."

Notably, children with high self-esteem were more likely to choose the difficult picture the second time if they had received inflated praise, suggesting that high praise has opposite effects on kids with low and high self-esteem.

The challenge, Meyers said, is knowing where "appropriate" praise ends and inflated praise begins.

"Parents have to ask themselves, 'How hard was my child actually trying when he did this behavior?' If they weren't trying hard or developing a new skill, the praise should be shorter," he said.

Parents should also pay close attention to what happens when they praise their child. They may observe that compliments result in their child's "pulling back" because the praise creates stress. Instead, parents should learn to narrate what their child is doing to demonstrate they are paying close attention, without defaulting to unnecessary and excessive praise.

"Parents just want to do right by their kids," Meyers said. "It's counterintuitive to think that praise could undercut their accomplishments."

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