The 1960’s gave us lots of cool stuff. Jimi Hendrix, bell-bottoms, skateboards, the Flinstones…and also an explosion of interest in self-esteem – i.e. the beliefs and feelings we have about ourselves.

The idea that feeling good about ourselves leads to success sounds reasonable enough, and the idea really took off. Some went so far as to call self-esteem a “social vaccine,” purporting that it would lower crime, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, improve academic achievement, and even strengthen our economy.

Over the years, this has led to lots of trophies and ribbons for everyone, bans on keeping score in youth league sports, and even a ball-less soccer league* in Canada (with plans to expand to puck-less hockey).

After all, failure feels pretty crappy, and providing our children with plenty of praise and encouragement seems like a very natural and positive way to help them feel better about themselves.

But in the long run, is this praise really helping? Or could it actually be doing more harm than good?

Praise is tricky

As it turns out, the impact of praise depends on (a) how you do it, and (b) to whom you’re doing it.

Do it right, and you can improve confidence and performance.

But do it wrong, to the wrong people, and you can actually set them up to feel even worse about themselves.

Meet Herb

Imagine you have a new vocal student named Herb. Herb is 10, and he’s an awkward sort of kid who is often unhappy with himself. As you talk, you quickly get the impression that he’s not very popular, and doesn’t seem to think he can do anything right.

You ask him to sing something for you, and he surprises you by sounding quite beautiful.

What would you say to him? (Write it down on a piece of paper…we’ll come back to it in a second.)

Two types of praise

We tend to assume that it’s particularly important to praise children who have low self-esteem. We see them feeling so down on themselves, and can’t help but feel that if we can just get through to them with some warm and fuzzy praise and encouragement, perhaps they’ll start to believe in themselves too.

But as it turns out, all praise is not created equal.

Consider the two kinds of praise we could give Herb.

One kind of praise is called “person” praise. This would be like saying “Wow, Herb, you’re such a good singer!”, where we praise who he is. This kind of praise is directed at his innate character and relatively stable personal qualities.

Another kind of praise is “process” praise. Such as, “You did a really beautiful job with that song,” where we praise what he did. This kind of praise is directed at his work, effort, strategies, thought process, etc. In other words, things that are changeable, and under his control.

Take a look at the comments you wrote down a minute ago. Which type of praise do you see more of?

Praise and self-esteem

These two types of praise have different effects, depending on a student’s pre-existing level of self-esteem.

Researchers from Utrecht University and The Ohio State University had 313 public school children participate in a computer-based reaction time game against an opponent from another school (or so they were led to believe – it was really just an automated computer program). They received on-screen feedback from a “webmaster” who would give them praise like “Wow, you’re great!” or “Wow, you did a good job!” or nothing at all (also just part of the computer program, by the way).

The children’s level of shame was measured before and after to see how good/bad they felt about themselves at those moments.

As the researchers predicted, when the children were provided with person praise, they experienced an increase in shame after losing.

But when students were provided with process praise, they did not experience a spike in shame when they lost.

What’s even more interesting, is that the amount of shame the kids experienced following a loss was significantly worse for those who were low in self-esteem.

In other words, person praise makes a bad situation even worse for kids already low in self-esteem.

What’s wrong with person praise?

Psychologists have a couple theories.

Some suggest that if we praise someone for who they are, when they experience the inevitable failure, they attribute this failure to themselves. Logically, if I experience success because I’m smart, failure must mean I’m not smart enough, talented enough, or good enough, right?

Also, when we person praise a child’s successes, the underlying message they receive is that we value them as people when they succeed – but if they fail, our esteem, love, or respect for them goes down a notch. This puts the child in a tough place where they constantly have to seek out and live up to others’ expectations, in order to feel like they are worth something.

We instinctively make things worse

The tough thing is that when we see a student like Herb, it’s awfully tempting to use person praise. “You have a great singing voice Herb! You’re so smart! You have such a terrific sense of humor!”

Egad. Are we somehow predisposed to inadvertently sabotage Herb’s self-esteem?

Possibly, yes. In a second study, the researchers found that parents gave children with low self-esteem twice as much person praise as children with high self-esteem.

Yikes. In other words, it appears that when we see a Herb, we are more likely to provide him with person praise, making him feel worse about himself when encountering failures, prompting us to respond with even more person praise, leading to a downward spiral of diminishing self-esteem, more person praise, and so on and so on.

So what are we to do?

Take action

When providing positive feedback and praise, focus on reinforcing those things that a student has control over. Their actions, behaviors, choices, strategies, approach, effort, thought process, and so on. Specific, concrete things they can act upon.

Praise the behavior. Not the person.

Where else might this apply? With friends? Colleagues? Coworkers?

Additional reading

The effects of praise @ Parenting Science

The power (and peril) of praising your kids @ NY Magazine

Presence, Not Praise @ Brain Pickings via Penelope Trunk

*Hee, hee. Yes, the ball-less soccer piece was a hoax. Although, doesn’t it say something that we totally believed such a thing was in the realm of possibility? Do check out the audio – it’s worth a chuckle or two.

photo credit: rpscott123 via photopin cc