When Praise is Punishment

How unearned praise undermines self-esteem and self-confidence in children.

Posted Oct 20, 2015

The dictionary definition of punishment includes “Pain or loss inflicted in response to wrongdoing” and “Physical damage or abuse.”[1] Of course, praising a child meets neither of these definitions. However, in behavioral psychology the technical definition of punishment includes a decrease in the target behavior following delivery of a stimulus. To be sure, when an unwanted act is followed by a time out or other consequence, this meets both the popular dictionary definition and the technical behavioral definition, but only if the undesirable behavior actually decreases.

The behavioral definition of “punishment” depends on what happens to the target behavior, regardless of what someone thinks will happen. One time I was working with a child with autism and the school called to tell me that his disruptive behavior was increasing. When I asked them what they were doing in response to the unwanted activity, they indicated that “time out” was being applied wherein he was removed to an isolated part of the classroom for 15 minutes whenever a disruptive behavior occurred. Naturally, this would serve to decrease unwanted behaviors in most children, but some children with autism prefer to be alone. So, the time out was not a punishment in this case, it was actually a reward. And the child’s own behavior confirmed this: The disruptive behavior increased when the time out was delivered rather than decreasing as it would in the behavioral definition of punishment (and as it would with other children).

This also applies to desirable behaviors. When there is a decrease in any behavior following stimulus delivery, then behavioral scientists would classify this as punishment. I was teaching a child with speech disorder how to pronounce the “r” sound correctly and gave him a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sticker when he was successful. And, this served as reward because his “r” production improved (increased). Subsequently, another clinician took over, but his “r” product became much worse. She called me to discuss the case and I asked her about the stimulus she was providing. As I had done, she was giving a sticker, but she didn’t approve of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and was providing stickers depicting Barney, a cute purple dinosaur. Although she believed the Barney stickers were a reward (and had every reason to believe this), from a behavioral perspective, the Barney stickers functioned as a punishment because the target behavior decreased when the stimulus was delivered.

By now you are thinking “What in the world does this have to do with unearned praise and self confidence?” Simply this: An increasing body of scientific literature indicates that a child’s self confidence and self esteem decrease when a parent provides unearned praise. In behavioral science, this meets the definition of punishment. In recent years, new research has shown that the wrong kind of praise—and too much praise actually undermine confidence. Worse, unearned praise and nonspecific praise will derail natural development of resilience and perseverance. One of the leading researchers in this area is Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford University.[2]

A study she completed on fifth graders illustrates the point that the wrong kind of praise can actually backfire. In this study, children were given problems that required effort to solve, but were relatively easy so that most were able to get the correct answers. Afterwards, half the students were told they were smart, and the other half were praised for their effort (you worked hard!). Then the students were given a choice of taking on more difficult problems or a test just like the first, which they now knew they could do (That is, they were not going to learn anything new) or a set of problems that were harder. Most of the children (90%!) praised for effort were eager to take on the harder problems, but a majority of those who were simply told they were “smart” stuck with the easier problems they already knew they could do. Scientists argue that simply telling children they are smart, or awesome, or geniuses, actually sets them up to keep from trying harder items and thereby risk making mistakes that will undermine the image of being “smart.”

But moderating praise is easier said than done. In his book Nurture Shock, Po Bronson [3] describes the great difficulty he had reducing and modifying this type of praise to his son—even after he became convinced that it was not good for his child to hear it. Every parent wants their child to know how terrific they are, no matter what happens, but this must be balanced against the need to foster their development. In the case of praise, the old saying “you can’t have enough of a good thing” is, in fact, false. Too much nonspecific unearned praise transforms a good thing into a bad thing. 

It is important to distinguish when to deliver praise and when not to, and to understand what form this praise should and should not take. If a child is praised for trivial, commonplace efforts and events (Wow, way to go, you woke up this morning!) your praise will lose its reward power and simply become part of the background noise. Why work for something you will get anyway, regardless of whether you try or not? Nonspecific praise like “you are awesome!” also undermines confidence, because a child has no way of knowing what this means (what did I do that was awesome?) and what it takes to achieve “awesome-ness.”

What makes praise a positive reward, increasing confidence, and what makes praise a punishment or simply background noise that is ignored? Remember that a reward must increase a target behavior or it is not a reward! In fact, if the target behavior decreases, what you think is a reward is actually a punishment! Studies on the “you are smart” and “you are awesome” forms of unearned praise show that even though the words are positive, the desired outcome (more exercise of intelligence, or continued good behavior) is reduced.

Remember, the goal of praise should be to increase desired behaviors. In the long run, you want your child to gain confidence in expressing him or herself; to persist in creative endeavors; and to be resilient when encountering obstacles, challenges, and to take genuine satisfaction in real achievement and honest earned praise. Those behaviors and skills, not empty, unearned praise, are what will foster your child’s self-esteem in the long run.

Portions of this column were adapted from “The intuitive parent: Why the best thing for your child is you.” 2015 Current/Penguin/Random House

[1] Webster’s concise dictionary. Trident Press International, 2002.

[2] Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House, 2006.

[3] Bronson, Po, and Ashley Merryman. "Nurtureshock: Why everything we think about raising our children is wrong." Chatham, UK: Random House (2009).