The science of praise

Praise, whether we're 6 or 60, presents pleasures and dangers

Posted May 26, 2009

One surprising discovery I made when I was doing the research for my book The Confident Child, was that children often respond negatively to praise.  A 5-year-old burst into tears when her grandmother looked at her school workbook and proclaimed, “It’s brilliant!” A 7-year-old kicked and screamed, and then squeezed her newly-made clay figure into a ball when her mother praised it as “beautiful”. A 15-year-old boy blushed with fury when his teacher said his English homework was “intelligent and sensitive.”

Praise is an important learning tool, but it is a difficult tool to use correctly.  Some psychologists warn that praise for overall ability is harmful because it suggests that any good performance is a result of natural ability, with the implication that a poor performance is a result of natural deficiency.  Praise for an outcome that emphasizes ability then makes a child reluctant to take on a challenge, which always has the possibility of failure, because a failure signals lack of ability.  Failures then threaten one’s overall self esteem.  So, it is proposed that children are praised for effort, and for specific achievements that are clearly linked to hard work, rather than for ability.

Taking the range of children’s responses to praise into account, however, it is helpful to broaden our understanding of praise as a highly emotive personal interaction.  The 5-year-old who bursts into tears when her grandmother calls her “brilliant” is buckling under the weight of self consciousness.  Or perhaps she is confused by this term, frustrated that it is used for something she knows is ordinary – for children are clear-eyed about other’s abilities relative to their own. The 7-year-old who ruins her “beautiful” clay figure focuses on the gap between what she wanted to make and the object she did make; when her mother praises it, the child feels that the mother is failing to contain her disappointment, which then spills over into anger.  The 15-year-old who achieves intelligence and sensitivity in his assignment may be ashamed to have his efforts acknowledged.  Or perhaps he has worked so hard, and is so proud of his assignment, that even this praise falls short of his expectations.

Problems in getting praise right, and in understanding the range of responses to receiving praise, is not a significant issue only for children and teenagers.  Writing in the Financial Times (London) this week, Lucy Kellaway reflects how hungry we remain, even as adults, for praise, how volatile are our responses to praise, and how rare it is for people in the workplace to get praise right.  Kellaway states that “correct praise dosage is gender dependent”, that men tend to take praise at face value and women reject half the praise they receive. 

Women are more likely to analyze and evaluate praise.  Someone may be “just being polite”; some praise is patronizing (“Who are you to assess me?”) and some praise may be off-target, as is that of the manager who praises a woman for being a “brilliant administrator” when she craves appreciation for a broader range of skills.  But awareness of the possible pitfalls of praise should extend far beyond the workplace.  Failure to use praise accounts for significant friction between parents and daughters, between partners, and between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. 

Praise is a means of establishing and reinforcing norms, so praise can ignite anger that may seem inexplicable and irrational to others.  When a teenage daughter is trying to resist her parents’ expectations and prove her independence of thought and character, her parents’ praise can seem patronizing.  “You’ve done a wonderful job on that,” can make her fume because she feels that her parents expect her to be pleased by their assessment, when what she wants to set her own standards.  Or, if said in a surprised tone, she can be offended because she picks up that they expected her to do less.   

Some women come to notice that a partner’s praise of their mothering skills, for example, can be a means of pegging specific tasks as “hers” and not “his”.  “You do it so much better than me,” can be a way of getting his dinner prepared by her. This may be a quaint and obvious tactic, but dividing up duties or skills or characteristics can strangle a marriage.  “You’re the competent one” may mean, “You cannot rely on me.”

 In a recent study I did of overlapping families, a 43-year-old woman bristled when her mother-in-law praised her housekeeping skills; the daughter-in-law saw this praise as a way of marking out a hierarchy of values.  And when one mother-in-law praised her daughter-in-law for her expertise in ironing her husband’s shirts, the relationship was brought to an impasse.  Anyone seeking to improve a relationship should take heed of the significance and the dangers of praise.