The XX Factor

How to Praise Your Kids Without Messing Them Up for Life

The same praise can mean something completely different for him and her

Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

Praising your kids—it seems like an obvious, not-fraught thing parents should do. And yet, according to a new study, delivering praise to children in ways that inspire rather than sabotage is harder than it sounds.

What forms of cheerleading stick? How do you convey sincerity? How do you avoid burdening your kid with stratospheric expectations? Developmental scientists have been asking these questions for a while now. So far, the research has treated praise as a fixed influence—a kind of powdered sugar (or crack) that tastes the same to everyone. But a new study in Psychological Science clarifies that praise’s effects depend on the characteristics of the kid receiving it. Kids with high self-esteem often respond to glowing kudos by taking the types of risks that might win them more approbation. Meanwhile, kids with low self-esteem tend to “avoid crucial learning experiences” in the wake of compliments, says Utrecht University psychologist Eddie Brummelman, because they fear “revealing [their] deficiencies.”

Brummelman’s study—actually a series of three linked experiments—focuses on “inflated” bravos. (“You are fantastic at this!” rather than “Good job.”) In one experiment, adults were presented with profiles of imaginary kids with high and low self-esteem. They were asked how they would fete each kid for completing a sheet of math problems. “Independent trained coders” classified the compliments as appropriate or overblown. The researchers found that 25 percent of the remarks were “inflated,” and that adults larded it on thicker for the (hypothetical) children who showed lower self-esteem. A second experiment confirmed these results: Less-assured kids got more effusive kudos, probably because adults wished to give them a boost.

Yet in the third experiment, this supportive impulse was shown to backfire. After taking a self-esteem assessment, 240 real children aged 8 to 12 drew a copy of the Van Gogh painting Wild Roses. They were told that a “famous artist” in another room would examine their reproductions. In the uninflated condition, the kids received handwritten notes from the “artist” (actually just another researcher) that read, “You made a beautiful drawing.” The kids in the inflated condition got notes saying, “You made an incredibly beautiful drawing.” Afterward, the children were presented with an array of pictures to sketch, some complex and some simple. They were told that if they chose to draw the complicated images, they might “make many mistakes,” but they would “definitely learn a lot too.” The easy designs would neither give the kids much trouble, the researchers explained, nor teach them many new skills. 

So what happened? Of the kids who were overpraised, the confident ones (per the self-esteem test) opted for the challenging pictures, while the insecure ones chose the simple images. This effect was less pronounced for children in the uninflated condition. Evidently, fulsome plaudits can make you reach for the sky if you’re sure of yourself. And if you aren’t? Well, it’s a lot safer to conserve the warm light of one compliment than it is to keep striving—and risk dispelling someone’s great impression of you.

There’s poignancy in these results. With good intentions, we’re more likely to overpraise the very kids who suffer when they’re overpraised—to paralyze them with implied expectations. Plus, it’s usually the most capable people who judge themselves most harshly, so children who really do deserve extravagant cheers are also more likely to freak out when they get them.

When I was a young, incompetent pianist, I loved performing for others. After each rollickingly awful rendition of Suzuki whatever, my mom would praise me improvidently, exorbitantly. That was MARVELOUS, she’d cry. I’m SO proud! I found her praise totally lovely and encouraging … until one day, I didn’t. I’d changed from a carefree kid into a self-conscious preteen, and suddenly the exact same words registered, not as incentive, but as pressure. I grew to hate playing in front of other people, especially the beautiful classical music my mom liked. And yet, even as it stressed me out, I still craved her positive feedback—which soared and swelled the shyer I got.

That feeling of craving was important. “Some are made modest by great praise, others insolent,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche. He left out that some are made unwitting addicts. Seven years ago, in an insightful piece for New York magazine, Po Bronson reported on a telling crossroads between psychology and neuroscience: Compliments, like sex or drugs, activate reward circuits in the brain. Consume too many and you’ll get hooked. The problem with praise addiction is not simply that you become a twitchy jerk constantly hungering for your next payload of applause. A dependence on praise correlates negatively with persistence. If you come to expect a hooray after every effort (which is how praise addictions take root), you will quit the moment it doesn’t arrive. Ovation junkies are dropouts and deserters—and if you’re using the hard/inflated stuff, overcoming the need for a fix is that much tougher. Maybe that’s why I entered exactly two piano competitions when I was 11, winning the first, spazzing out during the second, and retiring my metaphorical jersey before there could be a third.

If only it were as easy as calibrating the wattage of your praise to your child’s personality, but there’s more: According to a 1998 study by Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller, when kids are celebrated for their effort, they take more risks than when they’re lauded for intelligence (presumably because they grow to see ability as fluid rather than fixed). But this gets at the problem at the heart of the parent/child/praise (dealer/user/substance?) triangle. Often, parents use praise not to accurately describe a kid’s isolated achievement but to show affection. They want their child to feel valued regardless of how hard he tried. Praise for intrinsic qualities—intelligence, talent—does a great job of expressing diffuse, unconditional love, because it celebrates who the kid is rather than one particular thing he does. So I would guess that cutting back on the panegyrics to your kid’s innate ability feels to some parents like withdrawing the deepest kind of emotional support.

But Bronson lays out a different explanation for overpraising in modern parenting culture. “We put our children in high-pressure environments, seeking out the best schools we can find, then we use the constant praise to soften the intensity of those environments,” she writes. “We expect so much of them, but we hide our expectations behind constant glowing praise.” In other words, adulation has become a mix of wishful thinking and hush money. Really good job, parents!