Why the Wrong Kind of Praise Could Heighten a Child's Fear of Failure
By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
Spectacular! Brilliant! Super! Epic!
In a 2011 survey, researchers found that 87% of adults agreed with the notion that “children need praise in order to feel good about themselves.”
It’s very natural for us to want to reward our students’ and children’s efforts with praise. And when we see a child who seems a bit down on themselves, it can be especially tempting to try to lift their spirits and confidence by offering them kudos with language that might be a bit more extreme than normal.
After all, we tend to think that we are more persuasive when we use strongly worded language.
But is this how confidence works?
Does more extreme praise statements like “amazing job” or “terrific job” provide a greater boost to self-esteem than plain old “nice job”?
Or might such inflated praise actually be counterproductive?
Inflated vs. non-inflated praise
A team of researchers conducted a series of studies to learn more about the impact of inflated praise on children.
They studied 114 pairs of parents and children (ages 7-11), where each parent ran their children through 12 math exercises.
Armed with a stopwatch and scoring sheet, the parents judged whether the child completed each exercise correctly in the allotted time.
Naturally, parents praised their children as they went through the various exercises. The researchers kept track of the number of times the children were praised, and categorized their praise as either “inflated” praise or “non-inflated” praise.
Examples of inflated praise would be phrases like “very good!”, “extremely good!”, “you answered very fast!”, or “fantastic!”.
Normal praise would have been something like “good!”, “well done!”, or “you’re doing well!”.
The first takeaway, is that inflated praise was pretty common – 25% of all praise was of the inflated variety.
The more interesting observation, however, is that children with lower self-esteem got more of this inflated praise.
It didn’t matter whether they were girls or boys, how old the child was, or whether it was the mother or father providing praise. Kids with lower self-esteem flat out got more inflated praise.
So if inflated praise helps children with low self-esteem develop greater confidence and makes them more likely to embrace challenges, this is spectacular news!
Hmm…but does it?
The researchers were curious too, and did a follow-up study of 240 children (ages 8-12) to see whether inflated praise makes kids more or less likely to take on challenges.
Each child was asked to draw Van Gogh’s Wild Roses.
Each then received feedback on their drawing from a “professional painter” (this was a sham – the “painter” was “working in another room” and children just received a handwritten note critiquing their drawing).
One group received a note which read “You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!” (inflated praise).
A second group received a note which read: “You made a beautiful drawing!” (non-inflated praise).
And a third group received no feedback at all about the drawing.
Then, the children were presented with a choice of which pictures they would draw next, some of which were simple to draw, others of which were complex. This was a test to see how willing they would be to embrace a challenge.
The experimenter said to each child “if you choose to draw these difficult pictures (pointing to the complex figures), you might make many mistakes, but you’ll definitely learn a lot too” and “if you choose to draw these easy pictures (pointing to the simple figures), you won’t make many mistakes, but you won’t learn much either.”
When given inflated praise, children with lower self-esteem shied away from the challenging pictures. They actually responded better to regular non-inflated praise, and were more likely to take on the challenging pictures when their praise wasn’t worded quite so strongly.
And the kids who had high self-esteem?
Well, inflated praise actually worked better for them – these kids were actually more likely to take on the challenging pictures when given inflated praise.
Praise is basically a tool that communicates our standards and expectations for how we expect our student or child to perform in the future.
So when we say “you did an incredible job” to a child with low self-esteem, they might actually be taking this to mean “you must always do incredibly well.”
And that’s a lot to live up to! Especially since low self-esteem tends to be associated with worrying about failing and falling short of expectations. This could make them more inclined to quit while they’re ahead and avoid future situations where their low abilities could be revealed.
Yet when the situation is safe, and they are pretty sure they can meet the standards expected of them, they are willing to take on challenges. This is perhaps why regular praise emboldened them just enough, without setting the bar so high that their fear of failure was activated.
High self-esteem children tend not to be as concerned with failure. They gravitate towards challenges and embrace opportunities to show what they can do, and are eager to demonstrate that they can meet the high expectations people have set for them.
So for a child with high self-esteem, giving them inflated praise – thereby raising the bar of future expectations – might in some cases actually encourage and motivate them to strive for even greater things in the future.
When it comes to praise, one size doesn’t fit all.
Though it might be more complicated and more work, tailoring praise to the child – in this case taking it easy with the adverbs and being attuned to how they respond to praise – seems to be well worth the effort.
Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.
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