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A little praise goes a long way.

In fact, a new study found that praise that’s “inflated” actually causes kids to try less. Surprised? Here’s what Dutch researchers reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. 

First, 500 children aged 8 to 13 and their parents were videotaped during play sessions. Parents’ comments about their children’s play was rated as absent (no praise), simple (non-inflated) and excessive (inflated). The taping lasted about five minutes for each families. On average, parents praised their children about six times during those five minutes and one-quarter of their comments (one to two instances per taping session) were inflated.

Counted as inflated were comments like, “You answered very fast!” and “Super good!” Comments rated as simple praise included saying, “That’s a beautiful painting,” and “You did well with that.” The difference between inflated and non-inflated praise was often just the inclusion of a word like “incredible” or “amazing.” An “incredibly beautiful painting” was rated by researchers to be more inflated than just “A beautiful painting.”

The reason for inflating praise seemed clear to the researchers. They had first determined that some of the children lacked confidence. Researchers asked them how confident they usually feel and the children said something along the lines of “not so much.” They then noticed that the parents most likely to use inflated praise were parents of children with low self-esteem. Clearly, parents seemed to be trying to buck up their kids, doing this either consciously or unconsciously.

This didn’t work. The kids were next asked to draw either a simple picture or a complicated one. Children who had self-identified as lacking self-confidence chose to draw the simple picture if their parents had given them inflated praise during the play session. Other un-confident children whose parents had given them simple praise were more likely to choose the more difficult drawing task. (Children who said at the beginning that they have a lot of self-confidence were interested in the difficult task without regard to the sort of praise they had got from their parents.)

So what happened here? According to the researchers, children who were told they performed “incredibly well” seemed to think want to maintain that level of amazingness, and so chose the task that would be easier to be “incredible” on. Inflated praise had the actually encouraged children to play small. Instead of encouraging achievement, too much praise may inhibit it.

Lead researcher, Eddie Brummelman said, “It’s good to become aware of the messages you send to a child – even when the message is well intended, it might have unintended consequences.”

We all want our children to have high self-esteem. We know that children who feel good about themselves do better in school and have more friends. But we can’t just talk our kids into being more confident. Confidence comes from trying hard tasks and feeling good inside.

Give your child real, important tasks to do, tasks that are not too easy but also not excessively difficult. Give advice if it’s needed. And make your praise simple. Smile at your child and say, “I like that!”

When it comes to praise, less is more.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.