Praise, like penicillin, must not be administered haphazardly. There are rules and cautions that govern the handling of potent medicines—rules about timing and dosage, cautions about possible allergic reactions. There are similar regulations about the administration of emotional medicine. 
In Western society, people are hooked on self-esteem. Not only on their own self-esteem, but also on their children’s self-esteem. Many adults see low self-esteem in children as a worrisome problem, and they believe that praise can cure this “problem”. However, our research shows that some forms of praise can backfire, especially in children with low self-esteem.
Our research shows that when adults want to raise children’s self-esteem, they are inclined to give them two forms of praise—person praise and inflated praise. Person praise refers to praise for children as a person (e.g., “You’re so smart!”) as opposed to their behavior (e.g., “You figured that out well!”). Inflated praise is praise that contains a very positive evaluation (e.g., “You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!”) as opposed to a normal positive evaluation (e.g., “You made a beautiful drawing!”).
Although person praise and inflated praise are provided with all good intentions and are seemingly benign, they can inadvertently send a harmful message to children, especially to those with low self-esteem.
Person praise can induce a sense of contingent self-worth. When children receive person praise, such as “You’re great!”, they might infer that they are only worthy as a person if they succeed. When they subsequently fail, they might feel worthless (e.g., “I’m not so great after all…”). This might be especially true for children with low self-esteem, because these children are quick to believe that others’ approval is contingent upon their performance.
We tested this hypothesis in 313 children. Children played a game, and received either person praise (“You’re great!”), process praise (“You did a great job!”), or no praise. Subsequently, they either won or lost the game. We found that person praise caused children to feel ashamed (e.g., worthless, stupid) following failure. No such effect existed for process praise. And importantly, the adverse effect of person praise was especially pronounced for children with low self-esteem.
“You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!”
Inflated praise can set very high standards for children. When children are praised for doing “incredibly” well, they might infer that they are expected to do “incredibly” well in the future. Children with low self-esteem might fear that they will not be able to meet these high expectations, and therefore avoid difficult tasks. This is harmful because children who avoid challenges tend to perform worse in school; they are more concerned with success and failure than with learning and improvement.
We tested this hypothesis in 240 children. Children copied a famous Vincent van Gogh painting (Wild Roses), and they received either inflated praise (“You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!”), noninflated praise (“You made a beautiful drawing!”), or no praise. Then, children could choose what pictures to draw next, and they could choose between easy ones (where won’t make mistakes, but won’t learn much, either) and difficult ones (where they could make mistakes, but they’ll learn a lot, too). We found that when children with low self-esteem had received inflated praise, they chose the more easy pictures. They probably sought to avoid the possibility of failure.
In an attempt to “cure” low self-esteem in children, adults often resort to person praise and inflated praise. But this inclination can backfire, and worsen the problem it intends to solve. Of course, adults should not stop praising children. Rather, they should think about how they phrase their praise. Especially when children have low self-esteem, it is important to focus praise on behavior (rather than on the person) and to praise in a noninflated manner (rather than in an inflated manner). Thus, much like medicine, praise must be administered carefully rather than haphazardly.
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Eddie Brummelman is a Ph.D. student in Psychology at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. He is currently on a Fulbright scholarship visiting The Ohio State University, USA and Stanford University, USA. His research focuses on the socialization of the self—how children's views of themselves are shaped by their social surroundings.
Brad J. Bushman is a professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University, USA and a professor of communication science at the VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands. His research focuses on self-views and on aggression and violence.
Our research was supported by The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (Grant 431-09-022). The study on inflated praise was part of Science Live, the innovative research program of Science Center NEMO (Amsterdam, the Netherlands) that enables scientists to use NEMO visitors as participants.