Are Our Children Overpraised?
A guide to raising children with confidence and resilience
Kenneth Barish, PhD
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, awarded trophies for just showing up, 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. I have met demoralized kids who were unable to sustain effort when they encountered even mild frustration or disappointment, and others who had developed attitudes of entitlement.
And the culprit is not praise, but criticism. Most of these children were over-criticized; very few were overpraised. 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 (or, for that matter, expressions of sympathy or solace) 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 research that demonstrates significant negative effects of praising children’s abilities, rather than their effort. These studies have also shown important positive effects when children were taught that effort, not innate ability, was the key to success. 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 their failures 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 and her colleagues have also shown, in both colleges and in junior high schools, that changing students’ mindsets enhances their effort, their achievement, and their ability to respond adaptively to stress.
Dweck concludes 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 conclude from this research, however, that parents should not praise their children. She writes,
Does this mean we can’t praise our children enthusiastically when they do something great? Should we try and restrain our admiration for their successes? Not at all. It just means that we should keep away from certain kinds [italics in original] of praise—praise that judges their intelligence or talent. Or praise that implies we’re proud of them for their intelligence or talent rather than the work they’ve put in. We can praise them as much as we want for the growth-oriented process—what they accomplished through practice, study, perseverance, and good strategies. And we can ask them about their work in a way that admires and appreciates their effort and choices.
Dweck wisely adds that this advice applies not only to how we talk to our children about themselves; we should also avoid global judgments in how we talk about others.
Here is an example of Dweck’s advice in action. Journalist Po Bronson describes his effort to take Dweck’s lessons to heart and to put them into practice with his kindergarten son, Luke.
I tried to use the specific-type praise that Dweck recommends. I praised Luke, but I attempted to praise his “process.”. . . Every night he has math homework and has to read a phonics book aloud. Each takes about five minutes if he concentrates, but he’s easily distracted. So I praised him for concentrating without asking to take a break. After soccer games, I praised him for looking to pass, rather than just saying, “You played great.” And if he worked hard to get the ball, I praised the effort he applied. Just as the research promised . . . it was remarkable how noticeably effective this new form of praise was.
This is a wonderful example, from a thoughtful and devoted father. Note especially that, with his new approach, Bronson pays more attention to what Luke is doing—his effort as well as his frustrations along the way. And Luke gets more, not less, praise.
Parenting advisor Alfie Kohn, in several books and articles, also presents a 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 our children may become, in this way, “praise junkies.” Kohn’s books include much thoughtful and wise advice. On this issue, however, I believe that his recommendations are wrong.
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.