06/24/2013 06:37 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2013

Are Our Children Overpraised?


It has become common in recent years for parents to be warned about the dangers of praise. We are told that frequent praise, although intended to bolster a child's self-confidence and self-esteem, may instead create increased anxiety and ultimately undermine her initiative and confidence. Many parent advisors are especially concerned, even appalled, by empty praise -- when parents or teachers tell children that they are wonderful (or worse, "special") when a child has not, in fact, done anything wonderful or special.

In this view, when praise is cheap, children fail to learn the importance of hard work. The critics ask, How can children learn the need for effort and perseverance when they are not challenged to do better, when they are given A's for C work and only hear good things?

My own experience -- and, I believe, a correct reading of the research on praise -- teaches a different lesson. In three decades of clinical practice, I have met many discouraged, angry and unhappy children. And the culprit is not praise, but criticism. Most of these children were over-criticized; very few were over-praised.

Children need praise. We all do. From early in life, children look to us for praise and approval, and to share moments of pride. Of course, I do not recommend praise that is unrealistic or insincere. I certainly do not believe in empty praise. But I believe that we should be generous, not stingy, with our praise.

A growth mindset

Psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues have conducted important and frequently cited research on the issue of praise. These studies consistently demonstrate significant negative effects of praising children's abilities rather than their effort. Dweck distinguishes two types of beliefs, or mindsets, that children (and adults) hold about the nature of our abilities. Children with a fixed mindset regard abilities, including intelligence, as unchangeable traits. Children with a growth mindset believe that our abilities can improve with effort.

When children have a fixed mindset, every challenge presented to them feels as if it were a test -- a test of whether they are smart or not smart, talented or not talented. A fixed mindset creates a feeling of anxiety and urgency, and an inclination to avoid, rather than seek, risks and challenges. When stressed, children with a fixed mindset are more likely to feel anxious and depressed. They are also more likely to become defensive, to cheat and to lie. In contrast, when children have a growth mindset, they are more likely to regard failure not as a judgment, but as an opportunity for learning. Children with a growth mindset therefore show more optimism and persistence when faced with setbacks.

Praising children's intelligence fosters a fixed mindset. Praising children's effort promotes a growth mindset.

Dweck concludes from this research that "praising children's intelligence harms their motivation and harms their performance." (She notes, of course, that children love this kind of praise. They love to be told that they are smart, and this gives them a boost, a special glow -- but only for the moment.)

Dweck does not believe, however, that parents should not praise their children. She explains that "we should keep away from certain kinds [italics in original] of praise -- praise that judges their intelligence or talent... We can praise them as much as we want for the growth-oriented process -- what they accomplished through practice, study, perseverance and good strategies."

Praise junkies?

Parenting advisor Alfie Kohn presents a different critique of praise. Kohn believes that frequent praise may create in children a hunger for external approval and a long-term sense of insecurity. He warns that children may become, in this way, "praise junkies." Kohn's books include much thoughtful and wise advice. On this issue, however, I respectfully disagree.

A child's need for praise and approval, for recognition and appreciation from admired adults, is not, as Kohn believes, an "extrinsic" reward. Candy, tokens and money are extrinsic rewards. Praise -- or a smile or a gleam in our eye -- is different. It is a deeply intrinsic human need, as important as any other. For this reason, when we praise our children, we do not create an addiction to praise. In fact, the opposite is true. Children are more likely to become praise junkies in the absence of our praise and approval.

When children feel proud, when they have been successful at any task, they instinctively look to others to share this feeling. Kids need this acknowledgment. Without sufficient praise, a child will suffer symptoms -- especially discouragement and lack of enthusiasm -- or he will seek this nutrient elsewhere, or he will become angry and demand praise, even if it has not been wholly earned.

I therefore believe that we should offer children generous praise for all of their efforts, including their good behavior. Over time, they will come to learn that praise is earned -- by hard work and good deeds.