In Praise of Children

How children are praised can be important in fostering child self-esteem.

Posted Apr 07, 2014

For any child, words of praise can be an important part of learning those skills that can prepare them for adulthood.    Whether the praise comes from a parent, a teacher, or even friends, children need to be told that they are appreciated and admired.   Perhaps even more than with punishment, use of praise can help reinforce positive behaviours and provide children with the guidance they need to develop emotionally and socially.

But is there a difference in the type of praise that children receive?   Based on the early work of Haim Ginott and expanded on by later theorists,  children can receive either person praise, i.e., praise directly at a child's personal qualities (such as intelligence or attractiveness) or else they can receive process praise which focuses on how they behave.   In other words, a child being praised for doing well on a test can either be praised for their ability (person praise) or for the effort they put in to study for the test (process praise).  

Though person and process praise may seem the same, research suggests that using person praise is more likely to backfire when children fail at a task.   Children praised for their innate ability rather than for their study habits tend to be more upset by a failing grade and are also more prone to have a negative opinion of themselves.     According to Michael Lewis,  children who rely on person praise are more likely to attribute success or failure to their internal qualities.    Getting a bad grade can be seen as an internal failure ("I'm not smart enough") rather than being due to not studying as hard as they could have.    Person praise can also make children feel that they are only valued when they are successful and that failure makes them unworthy.   As a result, children receiving person praise may be more emotionally vulnerable to failure and continually needing to "prove themselves."

How do children with low self-esteem respond to person praise?   Many adults, hoping to build up self-esteem in children who are shy or who don't have a high opinion of themselves, will often praise those children for their inner qualities (such as attractiveness or intelligence).   On the other hand, children with high self-esteem are more likely to be praised for how they behave, i.e., praised for their achievements rather than who they are.   Unfortunately, giving person praise to children with low self-esteem can often be counterproductive since it can make children more self-conscious.   By focusing more on internal qualities, children may be more distressed at making mistakes that might make others see them differently (such as a failing grade). 

A recent paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General presented a series of studies by Dutch researchers examining parents and children to see  the impact of person and process praise on self-esteem in children.    Conducted by Brad Bushman of Ohio State University, and a team of fellow researchers in the Netherlands,  the research was intended to test the type of praise adults gave children and how that praise influenced the way they responded to failure.

For the first study,  357 Dutch-speaking parents (87 percent of whom were mothers),  were given hypothetical situations involving children with high self-esteem ("Lisa usually likes the kind of person she is”) or low self-esteem ("Sarah is often unhappy with herself”).   They were then given descriptions of the child's performance ((e.g., “She has just made a beautiful drawing”) and asked to describe the praise they would give.     The praise was independently coded as either person praise (e.g., “You’re such a good drawer!”) or process praise (e.g., “You did a good job drawing!”).  Analysis of results showed that parents were twce as likely to provide person praise to children with low self-esteem than for high self-esteem children.  In contrast, high self-esteem children were far more likely to receive process praise.    The results matched previous research showing that parents tend to tailor the praise they provide depending on the child's self-esteem.

In the second study,  313 children ranging in age from eight to thirteen were recruitied from schools in the Netherlands and tested for self-esteem.   The experiment involved children being told they would be playing an online reaction game called Go! against a child in another school.   Their performance results would then be recorded on the Internet.    After first completing a non-competitive practice round, the webmaster would relay either person praise (“Wow, you’re great!”) or process praise (“Wow, you did a great job!”).   There was also a no-praise condition to act as a control.   

The next round had participants competing with conditions in which they either won or lost.   Pretesting and posttesting measured how they felt emotionally before and after competing.   Results showed that children receiving person praise were far more likely to feel shame after losing than if they had received process praise.  As expected, this result was strongest among children with low self-esteem.

In discussing the results of their different students, Brad Bushman and his co-authors point out that adults often give extra person praise to children with low self-esteem as a way of making them feel good about  themselves.   Unfortunately,  this often backfires and makes children feel greater shame after failing at some task.    Even allowing for the fact that children with low self-esteem are more likely to feel shame than other children,  the effects of person praise can often lead to the very emotional vulnerability that adults hope to prevent in the first place. 

Chldren who base their feeling of self-worth on person praise received from well-meaning adults, be they parents, teachers, or other people they respect, can find themselves in a downward spiral.   As children with low self-esteem encounter failure of any kind, their self-esteem can be damaged even further and make them feel unworthy and unloved.     As an alternative to the potentially damaging effects of person praise, Bushman et al., suggest that the praise should be made unconditional (eg., "you're great no matter what") or else by directing praise towards their actions rather than focusing on their sense of self.  

While Charles Lamb once wrote that children are "fed with milk and praise", how children are praised can also be important in helping chldren develop emotionally.  By learning that the praise they receive is unconditional and based on their behaviour rather than their inner qualities, children can learn to cope with failure far more effectively.  

So don't be afraid to praise your child.   But recognize that the kind of  praise children receive is important as well. 

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