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 praise. Person 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 Inventory. Twenge 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.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.