To praise or not to praise, that is the question.
Several research reports published recently have asserted that ‘overpraising’ children can actually set them up to fail. One such study carried out at Utrecht University in the Netherlands found that over exaggerated praise is well intended, but for. kids who have low self-esteem it can make them less confident. Eddie Brummelhein, a doctoral student at Utrecht, states that praise causes less confident children to believe that they must constantly achieve to a high level. Unfortunately, this belief actually stops those students trying new tasks in case they fail.
A similar study found that telling pupils they are clever before an examination can actually worsen their grades. The rationale is that in telling a student that they are bright can increase performance anxiety and fear of failure.
It is understandable that some parents are left feeling a little confused. Mums and Dads are left thinking do I or do I not praise my child? What is helpful encouragement and what is potentially damaging? So should you praise your child?
The answer is a resounding ‘Yes’. It is good to praise your child and to start praising them early. The guiding rule is that praise must be appropriate to the task accomplished. It must also be earned.
Exaggerated praise, however well-meaning is likely to eventually backfire. Too much praise and your child may acquire a tendency to give up early on tasks or to over inflate their skills. These behaviours could eventually result in underperformance, a lack of general efficacy and ultimately the Achilles syndrome, (the secret fear of failure.) Appropriate praise and encouragement on the other hand builds genuine self-esteem and self-confidence. Well-proportioned praise leads to self-belief.
The development of self-belief is essential for the concepts of stamina, perseverance and successful problem solving.
It is also the case that children are able to recognise when you are over egging the praise. When an adult gives exaggerated praise, children tend to think you are ‘bigging up’ their skills because they are really not good at something. Essentially praise that was meant to build esteem actually kills it stone dead. Some professionals assert that praise makes a child dependant on an adult and instead encourage parents to simply reflect back to the child what they have accomplished. ‘Oh you finished that puzzle’ rather than ‘well done for finishing the puzzle’. The belief being that the child will respond to ‘Oh you finished that puzzle’ with ‘I am clever’. This is potentially dangerous thinking. A young child needs to hear positive reinforcement to develop the ability to self-evaluate. They are unable to self-evaluate fully unless they are shown how to do this.
Many decades ago the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky in his seminal work on child development spoke of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) and the role that parents play in scaffolding or helping a child to extend their skills beyond their chronological age. Praise given correctly is a vital component in scaffolding a child’s emotional and physical development. This remains true.
The key is to provide appropriate and encouraging praise in a timely and proportioned manner. It is not overpraising every routine thing your child does. The most effective praise contains the message ‘you have done well and you have the potential to build on this’. Not, ‘you are fabulous’, the ‘cleverest’ and the ‘greatest star’, even if, like most parents you really believe they are.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner & E. Souberman., Eds.) (A. R. Luria, M. Lopez-Morillas & M. Cole [with J. V. Wertsch], Trans.) Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. (Original manuscripts [ca. 1930-1934])
Written by Dr Christine Tizzard Consultant Chartered Adult, Child and Adolescent Psychologist. Clinical Director Sheehan Brooke Psychology. Chichester. www.sheehanbrooke.org