Why the Wrong Kind of Praise Can Undermine Our Students’ Confidence

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.

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17 Responses

  1. I’m thinking that the whole praise- thing is even more complicated? If a child gets valued and “judged” based on performance or behaviour , isn’t there a possibility that the urge for positive feedback can influence the motivational aspects?

    Like when small children gets applauds from grown ups when performing menial tasks leads them to crave this kind of attention?

    Trying to be as neutral and avoiding judgements like good or bad would acknowledge the child /student to separate music performance and self esteem a bit?

    How does this sound? What theory is this kind of reasoning derived from?

    All the best from Sweden

    1. Hi Peter,

      It is indeed a complex, nuanced, and still evolving area of research. One aspect that you are referring to I think, has to do with an internal vs. external locus of evaluation, where we become dependent on others to evaluate our work and determine our worth. The answer is not so much to avoid judgment altogether (which deprives them of the kind of performance feedback they need to improve), but to also be sure to help them cultivate their own sense of what is good and bad. And as you mention, to make sure a child or student’s identity isn’t solely based on one aspect of who they are and what they do.

  2. Great article. This isn’t something I’ve ever thought about but something I do naturally. When a student comes back to a lesson and we recap I always say things like ‘well done, you’ve obviously been practicing this week’. Now that I think about it I could better my praise during lessons. Anything that makes me a better teacher has to be a good thing, Cheers, Kyle

  3. I’m no psychologist, but it would seem that these two types of praise should be used situationally, and in some cases. . together. Do you want a kid to be valued only if he or she succeeds on some particular task? I agree that judicious use of process praise is likely a better strategy for increasing self-esteem (assuming that can be done) than blanket use of person praise, but as a single-bullet approach my guess is it would fall short.

  4. Love this! Thanks for all the hard work, dedication and reflection you do to make this blog happen. I’m assuming you read Mindset: The New Psychology Success? If not, I think you’ll get a lot out of it.

    1. Hi Lorraine,

      Thank you! Yes, I’ve been thinking of Carol Dweck’s work a lot lately – especially as my kids get older and I try to figure out how to say the right things at the right times…

  5. Thank you for this insightful post. Many would immediately recognize the opposite: if a student performs poorly on a given day, or for a given task, any good teacher would recognize that “person criticism” would be inappropriate. We wouldn’t tell a student hacking his way through the etude, “You’re awful!” or “You’re a terrible person/musician!” Instead, we’d find a way to offer constructive feedback on the task itself, rather than offering judgment on the person. Makes perfect sense that the inverse should hold true.

  6. Ball-less Soccer League in Canada is from a satirical comedy show on CBC Radio called “This is That!”. Hilarious that you fell for it.

  7. Is this something that really only effect children or is this applicable to adults as well? If someone says that I’m a great cellist (at which point I know they’re lying or trying to sell me something) versus that I’ve been working hard, I’m not sure that I would care much either way. Perhaps because I’m an adult or perhaps because their opinion doesn’t matter much to me? Maybe if my cello teacher said that it would matter. So the basic question I have, is does this apply to most everyone or only certain subsets?

    1. Hi Karl,

      I think it depends. If you are an adult beginner for instance, the feedback you get from your teacher will be much more influential than if you’ve already been playing for decades and have already developed a stronger sense of your capabilities, level of playing, and what excellence sounds and feels like. Carol Dweck’s book Mindset is a good book for adults to read. Relates not just to the students and children in our lives, but our grownup selves as well.

  8. Thanks for the great article. I’ve never thought about two different types of praise. The differentiation makes perfect sense. I’ve always struggles with low self-esteem when it comes to performing. Whenever I was to get “person” praise, I just assumed they felt sorry for me because of my poor performance and their trying to chear me up. It’s hard to take seriously.

    The praise I still remember was always the praise the had a concrete example for why I was being praised. “That was a great crescendo,” “The coda was so clean!” etc.

    I will definitely work on offering my students process over person praise from now on. I think this is a great parenting tip as well. Thanks again for the insightful post!

  9. I totally love this post! The issue of praise is something that I have struggled with a lot through the years. I am a teenaged pianist and people always are saying how good I am. I worked really hard at music in my earlier years (and still do) because I wanted that praise. I wanted people to say how good I am. Now usually when I get that praise I feel that it isn’t something that I deserve. But sometimes it does feel good after a recital or concert. But one thing I DETEST about getting praise is that lots of the other teens get jealous of me because when people (especially their parents) say how good I am and they are there they feel like I am some hotshot showoff pianist and sometimes even hate me because I have something that they don’t have (and their parents and other adults like it). So I think that we need to be more careful about who is around when we are praising people for something that they have done.

  10. There is a big difference between positive, constructive criticism and handing out unwarranted praise. The scoreless sports drives me crazy, as does the “trophy for every kid” mentality. When I was growing up, earning a trophy meant something. Only one team got one, and it was a goal to achieve. So what if someone has to lose? It is good to learn to lose graciously, as much as it is to win graciously. It is a lesson we should all take to heart. Thanks for the post!

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