The Problem With Praise: Experts Say It’s Imperative We Stop Overpraising Our Kids

The time: 6:30 p.m.

The place: A messy kitchen.

The characters: My husband, four children, one tortoise (in the cage in the dining room. Sleepy has nothing to do with this story but I thought I’d throw him in), and me.

The scene: I’ve biked to the Co-op to buy challah for Shabbat and pedalled back up our steep hill with a backpack full of groceries. I’ve made brown rice pasta with fresh garlic and tomato sauce, artichokes, a vegetable plate, and greens and beans.

We light the candles and sing the prayers. Then everyone starts talking at once, asking for more juice, wondering what’s for dessert (there isn’t one), wanting seconds.

“Does anyone like this dinner?” I ask.

“Yeah, Mom, it’s great!” My oldest daughter, who is 12, says.

“My compliments to the chef,” my 8-year-old son agrees, his mouth full of pasta and pinchy cheese.

My husband doesn’t say anything.

As the kids get louder James gets quieter.

Instead of appreciating my children’s praise, I feel uncertain and insecure, wondering if James isn’t enjoying the food.

“You don’t like it?” I ask.

He looks startled.

“I do. I do. I said it was good.”

I’ve spent more than two and a half hours shopping and cooking and my kids and husband have just told me I’ve made a nice meal. I like to cook and I think of myself as a pretty good chef. So why don’t I feel more confident?

Why do I have the nagging sense that the kids and my husband are just humoring me, secretly thinking that the pasta’s too al dente (which it is) and that they’d rather have pizza?

In her book, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation Of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids, Madeline Levine, Ph.D., argues that praising a child’s achievements can actually have a deleterious effect on self-esteem. If we tell our kids “good job” because they got an A on an exam, we are inadvertently criticizing their other grades–the ones they may have actually worked much harder to earn. If we say, “I’m proud of you for doing well in Chemistry,” we suggest we are not proud of them for who they are, how hard they studied, or how they went to meet with the science teacher to get extra help.

Levine points out that despite the badges, ribbons, and lavish praise that have become part of our current culture, today’s kids are not better adjusted than they were forty years ago. Instead, they are more emotionally troubled and less academically successful.

Why Praise is Often “Bad” Warmth:
1. Children need a realistic sense of self, not an overly inflated sense of self.

2. Indiscriminate praise makes it difficult for children to evaluate themselves realistically.

3. Overpraise does not grow a child’s character, foster compassion, or help them find a moral compass, it gives them, instead, a disturbing sense of entitlement and a tendency towards narcissism.

4. Self-absorbed children, like self-absorbed adults, are not very nice to be around.

5. We praise our children to bolster our own needs, not theirs, because it makes us feel good and it helps us control them.

6. Praising the result and not the process ignores the most critical aspects of learning: effort and improvement.

7. A child who is constantly praised for something they are good at is less likely to try to do something new, for fear of not being good at it.

8. Children need to know we love them unconditionally, for who they are, regardless of their accomplishments.

Levine argues that instead of praising achievements (“I’m so proud you got 100 on that spelling test”), noticing the effort someone has put into something, and appreciating how hard they’ve tried (whether they failed or succeeded) works better to foster good self-esteem, a good work ethic, and good values. If my husband had said, “You really hoofed it down to the Co-op to get all the ingredients,” or “You’ve been working really hard making this meal, and I appreciate it,” I would have believed the praise was genuine, and I would have felt noticed and loved (if not for my dinner then at least for my effort), instead of thinking he was just telling me what he thought I wanted to hear.

It feels good when someone notices the effort you’ve put into something. It seems so much more genuine and believable than when they blandly praise the result of that effort or the result of something that didn’t take much effort at all.

I learned so much from reading The Price of Privilege that I plan to buy several copies to share with my friends. The last book I felt that strongly about was No Impact Man. But I am wondering how to put Levine’s insights into practice with my own children. As much as any parent, I’m in the habit of saying, “Good job!” or “Well done!” about their achievements. I even praise my toddler when she goes poop (which is sometimes quite a strain as she tends towards constipation). What I need to do is pay attention to my children’s effort. I thought my 11-year-old daughter’s science project was wonderful. But instead of telling her that, maybe I could say something like, “You and Alex really managed to coordinate your schedules to work on the science project and run tests on 23 people. That’s a lot. I’m impressed with all the work you did on it.” And I could simply shut up and sit quietly with Leone when she needs my help in the bathroom.

Praising the effort instead of the achievement takes more time. It means you have to be present, notice, and pay attention. But isn’t that what we all want? For the people who love us to be present for us, to notice us, and to pay attention?

Do you think praise is helpful or hurtful? How do you feel when someone praises you? Do you praise your children too much? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. (And come back later next week when I’ll be exploring the flip side of the problem of praise: that being overly critical can irreparably damage our kids.)

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Categories: parenting.

Comments

  1. Judy

    I remember when I was a school teacher, I watched a video of a man teaching children how to do “new math”. He was warm and enthusiastic, but never once praised a child for getting the right answer. The kids were very engaged and enjoying their own success, and didn’t seem to need any validation from him. That way of helping them to learn without needing praise from him really impressed me.
    However, in your cooking dinner story, others were involved. You were doing something that involved them, maybe even FOR them, and it seems like human nature to me, that you’d want some appreciation for it.

  2. Athena

    If you had praised me like you said that you should have, I would have just told you, “Could you repeat that in English?” But I think I’m going to tell my friend Alex about this blog post because I think she would like to read it.

  3. Alex

    Are you saying our science project wasn’t good? Because I kind of really liked it. (Although I appreciate you mentioning it). Oh, and nice comment, Athena.

    • Alex, I thought your science project was FANTASTIC (not just good, wonderful!). What I’m trying to say is that the important part is that you girls worked really hard on it, made time for it, had fun, and learned a lot doing it. It’s the effort and the process that is important, not the end result. (At least, if you agree with Madeline Levine, who wrote the book I was quoting from.) Make sense?!

  4. Liz Schmidt

    It’s such a coincidence that you wrote this today. Our daughter struggles a great deal with math and she just completed a whole page of multiplication problems–probably 70 of them–and got all of them right! I wrote something wonderful on the page and praised her big-time, as she has really come a long way with math and I am truly proud of her. I would feel horrible NOT praising her for this achievement, especially since we are forced to point out her errors so often (a parent has to correct her homework before it goes to school). I think this qualifies as an exception to the rule…

    But on your topic of dinner, I appreciate anyone who tells me “this is good” even if they are not 100% truthful…it tells me someone at the table appreciates the work I do, plus people do not always agree on what tastes good, or even what tastes good today! Please…make my day 😉

  5. Madeline Levine

    Hey Liz,
    Madeline Levine here. Just wanted to point out that your daughter definitely deserves kudos. The point is simply that she must have worked really, really hard to do so well, and research says you’re better off praising her effort and improvement than simply the fact that she got them right. The focus on effort and improvement should make the next round of tough math problems easier when she remembers “I can do it if I work hard.”

  6. Such a fine line, isn’t it? I don’t think I praise for grades too much. I often tell the kids I am proud before they hand the work in–if I think they did good work I don’t really care what the teacher may give. With report cards for the young ones I don’t even show them to the kids. I just say, “teacher said you’re a fine student, you listen and follow directions, and you’re kind.” My older one is different. I do show him the grades. If He is not handing in homework etc I tell him I am disappointed. If he is doing well I simply say “keep it up.”

    He tried a new sport this year. I was impressed. Then he got in the car after a match and smiled saying he won. I could not contain myself. I yelled, in Elaine style, “GET OUT!” and playfully grabbed him and shook him with excitement. (He is nearly bigger than me..no worries.). I don’t think I am over the top but sometimes et very happy for my kids–especially when they work really hard.

    As for dinner. Oy. I like to cook too but it is hard to feel like anyone appreciates it. However, the other day my 6 year old wrote me a move telling me she loved me and hid it under my pillow. In it she wrote, “and the food you make is always delicious.” I sincerely appreciated that! appreciate
    Claudine recently posted…Double TroubleMy Profile

  7. Jennifer, here’s the New York Magazine article basaed on the work by then Columbia Un. psychologist/educator Carol Dweck. http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/ This is a wake up call to parents who think that praising a child is actually beneficial to their self-esteem, when it, in fact, could be undermining their capabilities and ability to push through adversity when they are faced with it. (I know I’ve read studies of how today’s college kids can’t cope when they have to make even simple decisions for themselves.) But, as for praising your cooking, I think that falls under the realm of good manners. I see too many kids who think they need to give an “honest” opinion always, regardless of how offensive or insensitive that opinion may be.

  8. Eileen

    I have been saying this for a long time. I don’t think praise is inappropriate but it should be used sparingly and should be well-earned. I think the biggest danger is that kids see right through false praise and stop trusting anything you say. You tell them you think they did a fantastic job on everything they do and they realize that you are just someone who always says that. Self-esteem comes from successful completion of age-appropriate tasks. There is nothing we can say that will replace that. If you want your kids to feel good about themselves, give them the tools and support they need to be successful. Ultimately your words have little effect.

  9. “Nurtureshock” by Po Bronson also talks about praise and US kids. They site a study where the responses of Asian parents are compared to the responses of US parents after their kids take a test. American parents hugged their kids and told them they did great jobs. When those kids were given a second set of tests, they frequently did worse for fear that they wouldn’t do a ‘great job’ again. The Asian parents all hugged their kids then pointed out the areas where the kids needed to work harder. These kids frequently worked harder and did better on subsequent tests. I do wonder about complimenting kids for making really good social choices, for making a friend feel better, being honest. But even in this area, I see my older daughter stressing a bit when we point out what a nice friend she is. I think it makes her feel worried that she can’t have an off day – can’t be a normal kid who sometimes snaps at a buddy. What about praise for getting all your chores done? I’m just curious. Of course, since no one in my family actually likes the same food, I’ll never suffer from too much praise in that area.
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  10. Laura

    The first major popular work on this topic is Alfie Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards” – published in 1993. It surveys the huge body of literature showing how the use of praise and rewards undermine intrinsic motivation. It’s addresses parenting, education and the workplace. Definitely a must-read!

  11. This is the the one thing I struggle with the most as a parent. My instinct is to always point out what my 3 kids have done incorrectly or not well enough, as opposed to praising them for their efforts, and to praise them when they are successful at something instead of for their efforts. I believe it is because I was raised the same way. The older I get, the more I realize that the process is always more important than the outcome, and the manner in which something is done if more important than what is actually done.

  12. I think the key word here is “genuine.” The praise needs to be genuine. I brought my kids up in France where the French school system was constantly tearing them down, so I guess I felt no amount of praise would be enough to counter this negativism.

  13. Lucy

    Praise feels to me, the most appreciated, when you either weren’t expecting it, or else when you were, the person doing the praising becomes more specific of what they’re appreciative of. Someone saying, “Oh yeah, that dinner was really good!” is different from, “Hey, are these peas from the garden in here, did you really go out in the rain and pick them all?!”

  14. Jennifer

    I highly recommend reading at least the abstract from this study of 5th graders: https://www.stanford.edu/dept/psychology/cgi-bin/drupalm/system/files/Intelligence%20Praise%20Can%20Undermine%20Motivation%20and%20Performance.pdf

    Here’s an excerpt:
    “Praise for ability is commonly considered to have beneficial effects on motivation. Contrary to this popular belief, six studies demonstrated that praise for intelligence had more negative consequences for students’ achievement motivation than praise for effort. Fifth graders praised for intelligence were found to care more about performance goals relative to learning goals than children praised for effort. After failure, they also displayed less task persistence, less task enjoyment, more low- ability attributions, and worse task performance than children praised for effort. Finally, children praised for intelligence described it as a fixed trait more than children praised for hard work, who believed it to be subject to improvement. These findings have important implications for how achievement is best encouraged, as well as for more theoretical issues, such as the potential cost of performance goals and the socialization of contingent self-worth.”

  15. dave

    I fear we have left our daughters with some residual problems from how they were raised! I do however feel very positive about the potential for them moving on strong. I wish I’d tended toward praise something like this: (Success) “now, you see: you’re a wonderful kid, and when wonderful kids like you really set out to do something, this is what happens! I am proud of you” (Failure) “Look, we both know math isn’t your strength, just like creative writing isn’t mine. But you tried hard, and that quality of yours – willingness to try – is many times more important than whatever mark you get on a math test, believe me. I am proud of you and I love you.”

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