Think about your partner’s or a friend’s repetitive praise: “You look great.” It’s nothing special, right? Even “I love you” loses its impact after a while when repeated too often with no eye contact or physical connection.In many ways, generalized praise has the same effect on children who eventually come back at you with, “Oh, Mom, you always say that.” Too much of “you’re the best” is not helpful or constructive.

After decades of thinking that most praise is good, new studies spotlight exactly how praising children for simply being themselves — with no accompanying feedback on how they’ve performed or how they worked to accomplish tasks — can be detrimental. The new consensus: When praising children, limit generalized praise and up specific feedback. It might mean the difference between setting your child up for problems and building him up for eventual success.

The Problem with Hollow Praise

When you say, “good job,” “beautiful painting,” or “great performance” to a child, the comments become “white noise,” or empty words with little meaning — eventually platitudes not even heard. While it may seem like the mark of a loving parent to do so, praising your child expansively not only devalues the praise, but also prevents her from actually knowing what doing a “good job” means.

Praising in glowing terms — especially if it comes after less-than-perfect behavior or performance — can actually send a message that he or she doesn’t need to try harder to improve. Children who don’t receive specific feedback may come to feel they’re entitled to praise no matter what they do. They start to believe that they can coast along, assuming credit will come anyway. When it doesn’t, they will be unprepared to cope.

In her study, “Mothers' Daily Person and Process Praise: Implications for Children's Theory of Intelligence and Motivation,” University of Illinois’ Eva M. Pomerantz used interviews to assess mothers’ praise in response to children’s success in school over a period of 10 days.  The results: “the more mothers used person praise (i.e., ‘You are smart.’ and ‘You are a good kid.’), the more children held an entity theory of intelligence and avoided challenging work in school six months later, which prior findings suggest undermine achievement.”

Person Praise vs. Process Praise

Furthermore, when you praise a child who is not doing as well as she could, she ultimately learns to believe she doesn’t have to do better to be accepted. She can coast or she feels entitled, expecting that everything should be coming her way whether she strives for her best or not. 

Another problem with too much praise is that you are not training your son or daughter to deal with criticism and failure. You run the risk of having your child dissolve when he fails his first test or gets a C; when he isn’t invited to a party or included in a get-together with friends; when he doesn’t get into the college of his choice. He will think, “I’m great — that’s what my parents told me my whole life, so what’s wrong with me?”

You cheat your child when compliments are hollow. Recent findings reinforce these points; Scientists at the University of Chicago and Stanford University discovered that the kind of praise a parent gives a child influences attitudes toward difficult tasks later on. The researchers describe two types of praise: “Person” praise (which includes those unspecific phrases like “You’re awesome!”) and “Process” praise, which revolves around more valuable specific feedback on a child’s actions and accomplishments. The authors found that having more “process” praise will better mold a child to have more perseverance in approaching and solving tough challenges.

Constructive praise with specifics and emphasis on performance encourages a child to strive and work harder. What does constructive praise sound like? Read Part 2

Resources:
Gunderson, E. A., Gripshover, S. J., Romero, C., Dweck, C. S., Goldin-Meadow, S. and Levine, S. C. (2013), “Parent Praise to 1- to 3-Year-Olds Predicts Children's Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later.” Child Development. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12064

Pomerantz, Eva M.; Kempner, Sara G. (11 Feb. 2013), “Mothers' Daily Person and Process Praise: Implications for Children's Theory of Intelligence and Motivation.” Developmental Psychology. doi: 10.1037/a0031840

 

Copyright 2013 by Susan Newman

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