The Paradox of Praise

James Schroeder, PhD
12
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In February of 2014, in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (General), Eddie Brummelman and colleagues published an article that revisited the subject of praise for youth.  For decades, praise and positive reinforcement had been hailed by mental health professionals as the antidote to many of our youth’s problems.  Parents regularly heard the message that there was no such thing as “bad praise.”  But as the research began to evolve, some began to question this notion.  Brummelman and his co-authors focused on two types of praise:  person praise and process praisePerson praise focused on an individual’s qualities (e.g., intelligence, appearance) while process praise focused on someone’s behavior (e.g., effort, persistence).  They also looked at just how this praise was directed and received based on a child’s level of self-esteem.  As predicted, they found that parents gave significantly more person praise to children with low self-esteem and process praise to those with high self-esteem.  They also found that in general, children who failed after receiving person praise (but not process praise), felt ashamed after they were not successful.

The authors concluded that the effects related to person praise may be associated with a couple of factors.  One, children may conclude that their worth is tied to particular qualities.  If they don’t meet the standards that others define for them (e.g., being smart), they may perceive that they are valued less.  The authors also surmised that person praise may put undo emphasis on the self, thereby leading him or her to attribute future failure to personal ineptitude, not difficulties with a particular circumstance.  I suspect a third factor is at play as noted in other research below.  Children who struggle with self-confidence often seem to become desensitized to repeated praise that parents give, in an attempt to help their kids feel better.  Unfortunately, it seems these children often think that parents “are only saying this because they have to” and feel that praise is merely given to counteract repeated failures on their part.

A few years prior to this publication, an article was posted in the New York Magazine by the title “The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids.”  It looked at another body of research from psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues (now at Stanford) that suggested the idea that labeling kids as “smart” might actually be causing them to underperform.  What they found is that children who start believing they are smart become overly focused on maintaining this image.  Therefore, they will often take the easy way out in order to avoid failure, and subsequent embarrassment.  The opposite seemed to occur for those praised for their effort.  Even after failure, they tended to work harder and attempted alternate ways of solving problems.  In essence, it seemed they understood that brainpower could be developed, not just inherited.  The effects remained the same regardless of gender or socioeconomic status.  The article also noted an increasing body of research that raised serious questions about whether “self-esteem building” actually leads to better occupational, social, or psychological outcomes.  It appears that teaching children to think highly of themselves, instead of the effort they give, may be a slippery slope with potential negative consequences, including the unhealthy levels of narcissism that we are seeing in young people today (e.g., Journal of Personality. 2008 Jul;76(4):875-902; Egos inflating over time: a cross-temporal meta-analysis of the Narcissistic Personality InventoryTwenge JM, Konrath S, Foster JD, Campbell WK, Bushman BJ.)

These findings may seem counterintuitive, or uncomfortable to implement.  Yet it appears the signs have been around almost since the beginning of our recorded history.  The ancient Greeks spoke of “hubris,” defined as excessive self-confidence or immodesty.  It signified a detachment from reality, a sense that one perceived him or herself as much greater than one was, and more responsible for traits and blessings than was actually the case.  Centuries later, Christianity continues to speak of “pride” as the root of all vices.  Similar to hubris, it is associated with excessive self-admiration and a minimizing of another’s accomplishments.  But the menacing nature of pride is tied to the pivotal fact that it prevents a person from recognizing all of the other vices that may be contributing to their own struggles and that of others.  Pride negates the truth that no matter how great our accomplishments or beauty, we are not responsible for the neurons and tissue and organic systems that make it possible, only for the effort to preserve or develop them.

So as parents, where does all this leave us?  Well, firstly, it is important to note that praise, and positive reinforcement in general, remains critical in promoting good behaviors.  All the authors agreed that it should be used regularly, but also in conjunction with other strategies, such as environmental adjustment (e.g., making sure the bedroom is not an entertainment zone) and systematic ignoring.  To be the most effective, praise should be as specific and immediate as possible.  Saying that a child “did really good putting away the clothes in his room” is much better than “you did a great job.”  The former will teach a child exactly what gets his parent’s positive attention; the latter will simply indicate that the parent was happy with the child.  As far as immediacy, this is not always possible.  But especially for younger children, the greater amount of time between the targeted behavior and the praise, the less likely it will have the intended effect on future actions.

As far as the type of praise, a few suggestions seem warranted.  One, when we praise a child, sincerity is likely more important than quantity.  This does not mean we shouldn’t use it regularly.  But it does mean that when we use it, we should be mindful of what we are praising.  Repeatedly praising a child for the same behavior probably isn’t the best use of our energy.  It is likely better served to target areas that we really want the child to improve, or maintain.  We also want to be sincere in our praise, and be careful about overly lavishing or applauding efforts (e.g., “Oh my gosh, this is the most beautiful drawing I have ever seen”) that may eventually lead the child to question the authenticity of the superlatives that we use.  On the flip side, flippant or callous praise, with no real emotion or expressed interest, probably falls as flat as a “thank you” not really meant.

Finally, on the tough topic of praising the person versus their effort, the research is clear that we should be very careful in praising a person’s qualities or attributes, especially with youth who struggle with self-confidence.  Praising effort conveys the message that persistence and conscientiousness, even with repeated failures, can reap benefits for all.  Praising attributes just tends to reinforce a self-image that a person may or may not have.  But if we must praise the person for who we perceive them to be, maybe these comments are best preserved for situations in which we recognize a turning, or memorable point in their life, even if you are the only one to appreciate the effort it took to get there.

“I just want to tell you how proud I am of you, and how much your hard work to get here has meant to me.”

That way, if your daughter is standing in your living room, and you tell her how beautiful she looks as she heads out for her senior prom, she will know that you really meant it.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this. It makes a lot of sense to me that children do better when their specific actions are praised, as opposed to when they are labeled as one thing or another. I can’t help but wonder, though, “What the heck is ‘systematic ignoring’?”

  2. I agree, properly and honestly praising – but also constructively criticizing children – helps children learn to believe in, and work to improve, themselves. This type of approach, along with unconditional love, can even help a child who was sexually abused. My son was sexually abused when he was 3 and 4. But he went from remedial reading in first grade, to valedictorian of his high school class, with absolutely zero help from any psychiatric practitioners – he overcame because of good and loving parents, some wonderful and encouraging teachers, a healthy lifestyle and diet, and thanks to good genetics.

    But it breaks my heart that psychiatrists are unconstructively stigmatizing children (many of whom have been abused) with “lifelong incurable genetic mental illnesses” and drugging them. Denying and covering up child abuse by stigmatizing and blaming the abused children with “mental illnesses,” then tranquilizing them, is deplorable. And in my ex-psychologist’s neighborhood, and I have medical proof that my ex-psychologist was in the business of covering up child abuse by misdiagnosing people with mental illnesses, six stigmatized children committed suicide violently, during the four years my child was in high school. And I have no doubt these “mentally ill” children killed themselves, at least in part, because of the unconstructive psychiatric criticism and horrendously adverse effects of the psychotropic “medicines.”

    Please help end the practice of covering up child abuse with fictitious disorders and drugs, because that’s grotesquely unjust and takes hope away from children. Six children killed themselves due to psychiatric unconstructive criticism, and I have no doubt, zero praise.

  3. James,

    I think this is an excellent and very helpful article for parenting, families and all relationships. I have been reading about the great harm of the “self esteem movement” for many years that you point out. Your article does a great job showing how praise that is honest and earned through one’s hard efforts that lead to accomplishment and positive traits is far more effective than praise for one’s God given advantages since one has more control over the former and less control over the latter.

    I just googled “the failure of the self esteem movement” and many articles come up. One excellent article that covers many of the points you make is “Could Your Child Have too Much Self Esteem” by David Sack, M.D. Actually, I think the advice you both give is great for any relationship because I think both children and adults can usually tell if praise is deserved and honest. It would also seem that phony praise leaning toward mere flattery can do more harm than good that may even decrease self esteem if the receiver feels it is being done to just shore up one’s lack of accomplishment and/or low esteem. At the same time, having one’s hard efforts and resulting accomplishments praised, acknowledged and appreciated by people with mutual caring and respect is a boost to anyone’s esteem, health and well being.

    Another thing I like about your article is that it focuses on good old fashioned, timeless values and ethics while showing how many of the ever changing fads and theories of the “mental health” profession can do much more harm than good. One great book on this topic is Psychobabble: Exploring the Myths of the Self Help Movement by Dr. Stephen Briers:

    http://www.amazon.com/Psychobabble-Exploding-Myths-Self-Help-Generation/dp/0273772392

    You are probably aware of the very harmful advice of the mental “health” profession that one had to let out one’s anger/rage or it might explode and do one’s health much damage for quite some time. Later, these “experts” admitted that the opposite was true in that dumping one’s anger/rage on others not only destroyed relationships and others’ health, but also adversely affected the rageaholic, making the person all the more angry and addicted to such angry/raging behavior while impairing their own health to the point of heart attacks. A great book on this topic is Anger Kills written by a doctor with such an anger problem:

    http://www.amazon.com/Anger-Kills-Seventeen-Strategies-Controlling/dp/0061097535

    On the other hand, many children and adults suffer great harm to their physical, emotional, spiritual health and basic esteem due to emotional and verbal abuse in schools, homes, jobs and community at large that many say can be worse than physical abuse due to the hidden damage and scars of the former that do not heal as fast and well as those of physical abuse. Further, physical abuse leaves evidence whereby the damage can be seen and lead to the victims getting help/support while emotional/verbal abuse leaves only psychological scars with no such obvious evidence that may damage a person for life that many ignore or disbelieve while blaming the victims. This is especially true when one is dealing with a Jekyll and Hyde personality with a false image in public and the nasty one in private or when nobody is looking who scapegoats and smears his/her victims so they won’t be believed.

    Dr. George Simon has written the excellent book, Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing, in which he explains that for much of the past neurosis was the major problem of people seeking help from Victorian times with many hangups, so most therapy was based on resolving these issues whereby people felt inadequate, false guilt and other debilitating feelings that interfered with their lives. Dr. Simon said that he learned the hard way that in modern times the problem of neurosis is much more rare while character disturbance or covert/overt aggressors known as the personality disordered are greatly on the rise. He gives great advice for understanding the ploys used by these manipulative, destructive people and finding ways to protect one’s self from them. Dr. Simon points out that the greatest mistake is that mental “health” professionals have tended to treat most if not all people from the stance of the theories of neurosis that not only don’t apply to the character disordered, but rather aid and abet them in their narcissism and psychopathy/sociopathy while aggressing against others. He shows how such theories are very harmful to the targets of such predators and gives great advice on how to find what makes the targets vulnerable and how to cope with the aggressors to at least have a fighting chance.

    http://www.amazon.com/Sheeps-Clothing-Understanding-Dealing-Manipulative/dp/1935166301/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1403734209&sr=1-1&keywords=wolves+in+sheep%27s+clothing

    http://www.amazon.com/Character-Disturbance-phenomenon-our-age/dp/1935166336/ref=pd_sim_b_3?ie=UTF8&refRID=19RKGH0NHME8NS08J481

    I only mention the angle of emotional/verbal abuse that can demolish one’s esteem to point out that a one size fits all approach does not apply to everyone as I am sure you know. Such abusers are great at unrelenting criticism, putdowns, yelling, rages and other very harmful behaviors that do a number on the esteem and well being of their targets.

    A great book on this is Patricia Evans’ The Verbally Abusive Relationship that has a comprehensive list with explanations of all the tactics that are typical of such verbal, emotional, psychological abuse:

    http://www.amazon.com/Verbally-Abusive-Relationship-recognize-respond/dp/1440504636/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1403735301&sr=1-1&keywords=the+verbally+abusive+relationship+by+patricia+evans

    I’ll end with a description of author Dr. Stephen Biers of Psychobabble that may be applicable to your work:

    Exposing the self-help myths that make us all more miserable. This is what your psychologist would really tell you-if he thought you could handle it! This is the kick up the backside the self-help genre needs: an intelligent, provocative and thought-provoking expose of the modern myths that we’re told make us happier, but in reality screw us up. Clinical psychologist, Dr Stephen Briers shines a light into the dark corners of self-help and explodes the myths, false hopes, quack philosophies and unrealistic expectations it routinely advocates. It is a refreshing antidote to the ‘same old same old’ approaches, offering a radical re-think of the way we approach problems in our lives, offering empowering new perspectives and expert advice on avoiding the biggest life traps. Dr Briers questions the perceived wisdom, shakes up the status quo, and encourages us to think again.

    Again, great, inspiring article that is a good reminder for everyone on how to promote honest, caring relationships that truly build people up rather than tearing them down. Thank you.

    • There is nothing more annoying than the “positive thinking” bullshit which doesn’t allow people to feel bad and requires you to be optimistic. It was well exemplified in a hilarious movie “Yes Man”.
      As to child rising strategies: I think two more strategies are very effective, namely giving kids responsibility and making sure that they feel needed as well as expressing disappointment when kids misbehave. I remember that for me the most effective reprimand was when my parent told “you can behave like this and it’s up to you but I thought you’d be smarter than that and that you’d take my feelings into account”. That felt like a cold shower every time and even if I didn’t express it immediately I made sure never to do the same again. That didn’t work with any physical punishment – that only made me angry and “oppositional”.

  4. If you clap your hands with glee and praise over every drawing a child brings to you, you’re likely to see that kid quickly scribble randomly in a snit, and then bring that too you with a considerably outraged challenge for you to praise him/her for that one. Kids need respect and they can spot a lot of phoniness a mile away.