Why the Wrong Kind of Praise Could Heighten a Child’s Fear of Failure

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?

Well…it depends.

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!”.

Two takeaways

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?

Challenge-seeking

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.

Why?

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.

Take action

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.

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Comments

17 Responses

  1. Thanks for the article. Two questions:
    1) How did the researchers determine high or low self-esteem in the students?
    2) What are some ways for private instructors to identify true self-esteem in their students?

    1. Good questions. The researchers used the Global Self-Worth subscale of Susan Harter’s Self-Perception Profile for Children.

      I’d feel a little weird about giving students a formal self-esteem assessment though. I think in the context of teaching, listening to what they say about themselves, gently asking questions from a curious/inquisitive place, and seeing how they respond to challenges and feedback is a more natural and organic way to gauge how they see themselves.

    2. to commenter jeremy (above),
      as an instructor to kids age 8-14 of both martial arts and viola, a quick way to assess self-esteem is by watching how the kids interact with other kids and by how they are with adults. on first meeting, i have everyone shake my hand and i can formulate right away by firm handshakes, eye contact, dead fish hands, or low-voice introductions a baseline self-esteem level. time, of course, is the best way to see these things; how they respond to challenges or failures takes time. but how kids are with their peers is a great tool (for me) to see what challenges lie ahead…..

      1. But lack of confidence in social situations doesn’t necessarily indicate low self-esteem. I know that as a child, I had a lot of social anxiety, but had pretty high self-esteem in that I felt able to succeed in academic challenges.

  2. Great article!
    I’m curious, is there a predisposition for low/high self-esteem?
    Are there genetic/cultural/environmental factors that show up consistently that contribute to one or the other?

    1. Hi Tricia – yes, there does actually seem to be evidence of a genetic basis for confidence at least, which is pretty interesting. But fortunately the various self’s (like -esteem and -efficacy) seem to be pretty dynamic and changeable.

  3. As always, a thought-provoking article! Thank you! There is another dimension of praise that bears investigation. Google “The Virtues Project.” The concept is very simple, but once it becomes a way of life, it is life changing for you and the people who benefit from it through how you deliver praise to them. The concept is that rather than just say “nice job,” you say specifically what you appreciated about it, what you thought was great. For example, “That run was very smooth” or “You played that with a lot of feeling!” whatever the “virtue” is that you admired about the performance.

    The idea is that each of us tend to grow up in homes where 2-3 virtues are particularly emphasized. In mine it was honesty, education and courtesy. However, we are each like multifaceted diamonds and can express many virtues – and it is ever so helpful when the people in our lives reflect back to us the virtues we are expressing – we blossom! Also, this way of life builds unity among groups.

    In the workplace, many people care more about being “seen” and apreciated than getting more money, according to some statistics. But this is true in every arena.

    The Virtues project started as a parenting approach but has since been applied to schools, prisons, marriages, workplaces, etc.

    Of course, the feedback must be absolutely genuine and sincere – it one tries to be manipulative with the feedback, it would, of course, make the recipient angry.

    Thus, rather than praise being about “winning” someone’s praise or pleasing others, it becomes something very substantive that simple reflects back the persons specific strengths and builds their confidence.

    Thank you for a wonderful blog!

    1. Ah, this sounds interesting. On a related note I’ve noticed that it’s so much easier to be lazy and offer a generic “nice job.” Actually paying close enough attention to articulate exactly what about a performance was good takes work!

    2. Ha! I just saw this post. I just love the Virtues Project. I use it with my students and they crave hearing their virtues, because it gives them inner strength. Especially for young girls who are overwhelmed by media messages telling them their appearance is their only worth. They need even more encouragement as to their inner strengths.

        1. Thanks Tricia. What a sad story. So glad she came out with the truth and is now trying to help others after all the suffering she went through. What an inspiring outcome to her earlier life.

  4. FANTASTIC ARTICLE.

    Lol.

    Seriously, I value your passion for doing research on the best education styles, your commitment to help teachers and students, your persistence in finding different ways your audience can improve their understanding, your discipline and hard work to make all of this happen.

    From what I learned from the virtues project (www.virtuesproject.com) is that virtue-specific praise is the most profound and the one that the hearer can truly hear, believe and integrate. It has three parts, an introduction (I value), a virtue (passion) and a description of how the virtue was shown (for doing research…).

    Other examples are:
    It was kind of you to help us out.
    You were really patient to wait so long.
    I see your compassion for her.
    I honor you for your courage to face that challenge.
    Thank you for being flexible about changing the time.
    I appreciate your helpfulness with carrying my boxes.

    It’s interesting because inflated praise isn’t believable. If someone says to you, that was a fantastic article, you could think: “well, really, I could have done better, I only spent 5 hours on it, and really I wanted to spend 10 hours on it, but I didn’t have time and so I quickly uploaded it because I have this other project I need to work on…”. So putting the praise way up there makes us compare ourselves to up there, and then we always fall short, hence the low self-esteem. But specific praise about the virtues I see in you, and giving the reasons why, has a much more profound and lasting effect, because the recipient can actually believe them and can be happy about the virtues he or she did already use and will therefore continue to try to develop even more next time.

    Anyway, thanks for this article!

    Lorraine

  5. One question that invariably comes to mind with respect to children with high self esteem, or low self-esteem, is how did they acquire either in the first place, and is their respective responses to various types of praises a function of the language that was utilized during their early development? Setting aside for the moment, the genetic potential for innate confidence in some children, (which I am assuming equates to high self-esteem), it is more than likely that specific language choices, introduced by the parents, with respect to how they evaluated, (verbally responding to the particular ‘performances’ of the children), determined the quality of the child’s experience, for better of worse. If, it seems to me, we can determine the factors that produce either high of low self-esteem; I suspect we can gain a clearer understanding as to why, in this case, young children, not only respond in predictable ways to certain phrases, but how we can optimize and tailor our comments, as parents or teachers, in each category.

    Your article clearly elucidates how parents/teachers can optimize favorable responses from children; when they recognize whether such is operating from either high or low self-esteem. This is a worthy goal, but the question arises as to what category, (high or low self-esteem), is best to cultivate in the first place. I seriously doubt that most parents/teachers set out to induce low self-esteem in their cages; nevertheless, and unfortunately, many children are inadvertently conditioned to question their self-worth; and therefore the value of much of what they try to accomplish. In other words, is performance enhanced more, if a child operating from a position of low self-esteem; even if afforded the best strategic comment/s relative to their performance, then efforts to ‘correct’ this mind-set with a higher sense of self-esteem.

    A child with low self-esteem should be praised accordingly, but at the same time, in my view, efforts should be sought, and applied to change this mind-set. Addressing low self-esteem, with appropriate praises, though necessary, and effective, smacks of damage control. As well, high self-esteem should not be an ego centered reality, but rather an appreciation of accomplishments and goals; resulting from the effort itself, rather than the person performing such. Yes, I realize, instituting a program for accomplishing what is suggested requires time, experience, and direct insight into the character of the relevant child, or adult struggling with low self-esteem. Obliviously, low self-esteem, even when methods are established to ameliorate such, cannot be judged as a desirable condition. Therefore, my particular focus is to address the possibility of altering this mind-set, rather than merely accommodating it. I offer these thoughts for your consideration. Thank You.

    1. I sincerely apologize. In the second paragraph I meant to say, ” I seriously doubt that most parents/teachers set out to induce low self-esteem in their charges; ( that is a person commited to the care). Sorry.

    2. It’s a very intriguing thing, this notion of self-esteem and all the various ingredients that contribute to it. Developmental psych was never my strong suit, but if I understand correctly, it’s really more from late childhood onwards that kids can form a clearer sense of self-esteem. They have a basic sense of good and bad, but they also tend not to internalize feedback quite as much as older kids. I find that rather interesting…

      Indeed, as you suggest, finding opportunities for children to experience successes, tiny wins, and mastery experiences goes an awful long way towards building confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. Heck, I’d suggest that it’s just as important for adults too.

  6. Interesting article! I will be paying more attention to the way I praise my students and how they respond. Thanks for the food for thought!

  7. I think Lorraine made a major point when she said “Inflated praise isn’t believable”. A child may well think, jeez I must have really done badly if they have to lie about it :\ Most of us have antennae for a certain amount of BS. I know, for me, the truth is highly important to my sense of integrity, and from there to self-esteem. So being truthful in one’s feedback – and the values project apparently emphasizes that – must make a huge difference to anyone who is hearing it. Maybe some of the “low self-esteem” children have a clearer sense of their actual abilities, and the truth about how others see them can help them broaden that perception.

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