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Children & Praise: Why Certain Types of Praise May Backfire

Research suggests that praising effort over outcome is best for children.

It’s hard to find anything negative to say about praise. After all, the very definition of the word refers to things like “admiration” and “approval.” Good stuff for any child, right?

Common sense suggests that offering praise is certainly better than withholding it. But researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands recently conducted two studies suggesting that not all praise is created equal. What’s more, certain types of praise may actually undermine the self-esteem of some children, especially those whose self-image is already fragile.

Personal Praise vs. Effort-based Praise

All praise isn’t alike. There are two primary ways to offer praise to others. One is to highlight one’s personal qualities. After scoring a goal, an example of personal praise might be: “You’re such an awesome soccer player.” When a child draws a picture, personal praise may be: “You’re the best artist.”

Certainly, there is no crime in sharing positive words with children! However, there’s another type of praise that researchers believe is more likely to build confidence and self-worth - particularly among children with low self-esteem - because it is independent of whether your child shoots the winning goal or creates a museum quality painting.

Effort-based praise focuses on behavior and efforts, not the outcome. This type of praise may be: “You’re really committed to your soccer practices, and it looks like you’re having fun, too!” Or “Look at all the colors you chose for your painting. You’re really working hard on that!”

Study of Parents

In the first of two studies, which were published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, over 350 parents were given six descriptions of hypothetical children. Three of the kids were portrayed as having high self-esteem (for example, “Lisa usually likes the kind of person she is.”). The other three were presented as having low self-esteem (“Sarah is often unhappy with herself.”). The parent participants were then asked to write a sentence of praise that they would give each child for completing an activity, like drawing a picture.

The researchers found that, on average, parents offered twice as much personal praise (“You’re a great artist!”) to children with low self-esteem than they did for the children with high self-esteem. These same parents were much more likely to offer effort-based praise for the children with high self-esteem (“You worked hard!”).

The theory behind this, according to the study authors, is that parents instinctively want to build up the self-esteem of kids – especially kids who are at risk for low self-esteem in the first place. Many parents feel this can be best accomplished by focusing on personal qualities (“You’re so smart.”). Instead, the authors suggest these children may feel that they are most valued when they succeed. This can lead to poor self-worth because no one scores the winning goal, earns the perfect score, or creates the masterpiece every time. When life’s inevitable losses and failures happen, these children may be more at risk for feeling badly about themselves. They may also feel less likely to try again.

Study of Children

To further explore this hypothesis, the study authors conducted a second study looking at how different types of praise directly impact children. This time, they recruited over 300 elementary school children and administered a test that measures self-esteem. Then, they told the children they would be playing an online game against students from another school, and that a webmaster would be monitoring their performance via the Internet. What the students weren’t told was that the computer was controlling the outcome of the game, and that the children were actually pre-assigned to a “winning” or “losing” group. The outcome was out of their control. Throughout the process, the experimenters praised some children with personal praise and others with effort-based praise. There was also a control group of kids who didn’t receive any type of praise. After the game ended, the children completed a survey about their feelings.

The authors found that the children who were praised for their personal qualities, but “lost” the game, were most likely to experience feelings of shame, especially if they had low self-esteem already.

What We Can Learn

The researchers suggest that when children are praised for their efforts - not their outcomes - they are more likely to feel good about themselves even when they don’t achieve success. What’s more, they speculate that these kids will be more likely to try again when they view failure as a temporary setback, not a personality flaw. On the other hand, when kids link their outcomes to their personal qualities, this may lead to a more negative self-image and a lack of effort in the future. For example, “What’s the point of trying again if I’m just not a good soccer player?”

Admittedly, the differences between the two types of praise may seem subtle. But if we focus more on effort than outcome, this type of praise may provide a notable boost in how all children feel about themselves, and how likely they’ll be to bounce back from setbacks and keep trying.

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