These days children are often showered with praise. Spend just a little time on a playground, a sports field, or in a classroom, and you'll inevitably hear adults praising kids for behavior that a generation ago would not have merited notice, such as showing up on time or remembering to do homework. One highly respected and popular children's sports character-education program, that is otherwise quite sensible, recommends that parents find some reason to praise their children five times for every time they criticize them-an approach to praise that is both excessive and far too robotic, oblivious to the nuances of when and how to praise usefully.
Praise can be very helpful, good research shows, when it is sincere and connected to real effort and substantial, specific accomplishment-instead of telling children over and over that they are "smart," better to compliment them on a real, specific act of intelligence, whether it's picking up on a subtle social cue or developing a strong idea for a paper for school. And every child should be told at times that they are "great" or "terrific."
But children tend to know when they have really accomplished something and when they have not, and too much unconditional praise or frequent praise that isn't connected to real achievements can create self-doubts and cynicism about adults. It's patronizing. As psychologist William Damon points out, "Children are perfectly capable of asking the same questions that we would ask when faced with empty flattery: ‘Why do people think they need to make things up about me? What is wrong with me that people need to cover up? What are these stories about me trying to prove?'" Psychologist and researcher Wulf-Uwe Meyer uncovered that by the age of twelve, children often view praise from a teacher as a sign that they lack ability and that teachers think that they need extra encouragement. Other research on praise suggests that children who are praised too much become more conscious of their image, more competitive, and more prone to cut others down. When children are praised all the time they can also feel judged all the time-they may feel that their competence or worth is always on the line, making them vulnerable to shame and other negative self-assessments. And too much praise can hook children on praise-children can start to require higher and higher doses of compliments and may feel that there is something wrong with them when they aren't being bombarded with kudos.
Perhaps most concerning, all this praise is based on a false notion about how the self matures and becomes stronger. Children do not become stronger primarily from being praised by adults: their sense of who they are becomes more defined and they become more confident about who they are primarily from being known by adults, by having adults understand them and reflect back that understanding.
What may be most helpful in reducing harmful praise and in praising in healthy ways is if parents are able to reflect on why we are constantly praising our children. As the psychologist Roy Baumeister argues, praising children can be a way of praising ourselves. Because praising can create dependence, it serves some parents' need for closeness and control. When I'm busy and stressed I also sometimes find myself using praise as a shortcut, as a seemingly easy substitute for my inability to pay sufficient attention to my kids. Feeling guilty about not being around enough, I start telling my kids they're terrific. Yet time and real engagement are meaningful to them-"time is how you spend your love", the novelist Zadie Smith writes-in a way that "you're terrific" is not. Sometimes isolated, recognition-deprived parents may also be projecting on to children their own need for recognition and praise. Parents' recognizing these motivations is often the first, key step in their praising their kids in sensible ways.
Richard Weissbourd is a lecturer in education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the author of The Parents We Mean To Be, How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development