Can praising your child too much do harm?

BlogHer Original Post

A new book says that praising your child too much could possibly do more harm than good. The book is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Developmental Psychologist and Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck. Her research indicates that too much praise can make your child fear failure or not work hard enough, and she suggests it's better to praise effort such as "hard work" or "strategy" and not genetic attributes like intelligence.

Journalist Po Bronson explores this phenomena in his New York Magazine article "How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise," from which the following small excerpt is taken.

Since Thomas could walk, he has heard constantly that he’s smart. Not just from his parents but from any adult who has come in contact with this precocious child. When he applied to Anderson for kindergarten, his intelligence was statistically confirmed. The school is reserved for the top one percent of all applicants, and an IQ test is required. Thomas didn’t just score in the top one percent. He scored in the top one percent of the top one percent.

But as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. "Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at," his father says. "Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.’" With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two—things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t.

In my own life, I attempt to be realistic with my children about their strengths and weaknesses without being too hard on them about their shortcomings nor too effusive about their positive traits. Still, I notice that my son will give up sometimes when he can't learn something quickly.

And when my daughter was in high-school (she's 26 years old now), sometimes teachers expressed concern that she didn't put forth enough effort and called that "cockiness." For her it meant the difference between a grade of "B" versus "A." My daughter participated in the gifted and talented program. I'd have talks with her about being too self-assured. However, unlike my son, my daughter works harder when she suspects a skill does not come to her naturally. Perhaps her tendency to press on is the result of her being profoundly deaf in one ear and moderately so in the other. Without hearing aids, she's pretty much completely deaf.

I've been trying to promote perseverance to my son and have always pushed that it's hard work that pays off. When my children have done well on tests for which I suspect they did not study, I would give a mini-lecture about how important it is to study regardless and that one day laziness will bite them in their behinds. Well, you know how much children looovvveee lectures. Despite best efforts, I know I've made mistakes with both my children and pay for it sometimes.

I didn't adopt a policy of not overpraising because I'm a parenting genius. I adopted it because I've observed my own life. I was a child to whom academics came easily and who was applauded as being smart. I am also an adult who deals with fear of failure and sometimes fear of success. Learning the hard way that hard work has a better pay off, that a sense of accomplishment is a wonderful thing, and false pride is crippling, I've thought about how not to pass my dysfunction in these areas on to my offspring.

This Does Not Mean You Should Never Praise Your Child

We've heard it said that "You can never praise your child enough," and so, I know some of you out there will think that this "new" psychology of success flies against building self-esteem. It doesn't really because it's not saying don't ever praise your child, but rather find better ways to praise your child, ways that will build character as well as boost self-esteem and make a more balanced individual.

Personally, I've been suspicious of giving undue praise as a way to "build self-esteem" because I think humility is a virtue, and I did wonder how will a child learn to do better if the child's made to feel everything he/she does is praiseworthy. Also, how will a child learn inner acceptance and discernment if the child grows dependent on external praise? In addition, I definitely avoid lying to children such as telling a child who can't sing that he/she sings well. (You know somebody must tell this lie. Just watch the American Idol early auditions and you know this.)

Critics of the self-esteem gospel have long said that we promote mediocrity by telling those who perform poorly, "You did that so well!" or by giving gold stars for average work in fear of damaging self-esteem. In some instances schools have been accused of lowering standards to build self-esteem levels. Going overboard on self-esteem is sometimes blamed for the decline in academic performance in our schools. It's possible, but I don't believe conscientious parents and teachers practice lying to children just to make children feel good.

On the other hand, sometimes we lie to make ourselves feel good and to avoid confrontation without considering the final outcome. Telling a child he or she is better at anything than he/she really is does that child as much a disservice as being overly critical and rarely praising the child. Not wanting to hurt our children, we're probably more inclined to err on the side of indulgence, but over-indulgence is usually proven unwise.

The wise know that there's a balance and an art to speaking in a way that builds confidence, does not crush people, yet also inspires excellence with warmth. Still, some of us shun giving even constructive criticism and have gotten to the place where we think the saying "You get an 'A' for effort" is an insult or something one says only to the mentally disabled. Perhaps we should recall ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Plato as well as lessons from life that teach anything done to excess may become harmful. "In all things, moderation" should be applied to praise as well.

So, this is where some parents go back to parenting class, me included. How best to praise your child is worthy of study.

You may find the following links helpful:

  • ABC video on this subject, includes interviews with psychologist and book author Carol Dweck and journalist Po Bronson. This video seems to work better in Internet Explorer.
  • Why Praise Can Be Bad for Kids, ABC News
  • "How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of
    ," New York Magazine
    Nordette Adams is a poet, fiction writer, journalist, poet, and blogger. You may read one of her other blogs at this link.
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