Dangers of Over-Praising Kids

by | Mar 13, 2013 | Uncategorized

Are you a praise-aholic parent? Beware, new research shows the wrong praise cab decrease kid self-esteem, motivation, effort, and achievement. How to use praise the “right way.” 

“Atta girl!” “Super, sweetie!” “Good job!” “You’re sooo smart!”

Sound familiar? All you to do is attend any kid sporting event-hockey game, volleyball, soccer, football, swim meet-and you’ll get my drift. Parents are there to support their kids-and yay that they are-but the accolades and praising for any effort is so predictable.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s no harm in giving kids praise every now and then–just as long as you recognize our words are not always beneficial in improving their behavior, motivation or self-esteem. In fact, too much praise of any sort can be unhealthy, and several recent studies from prestigious institutions  reveal that the wrong kind of praise can backfire and even impede our kids’ progress. That was what I shared on the TODAY show and here is the those important studies..as well as the right way to acknowledge our kids.

How Praise Can Backfire 

Our wrong words can create self-defeating behavior and lower our children’s motivation. Many experts feel that the biggest culprit behind kids who appear less resilient is hearing the kind of wrong praise from their parents. Here is just a sample of research findings of how using the wrong kind of praise can backfire and reap the wrong results in our child..

* Curbs kid effort: Praising kids for their intelligence (“You’re smart”) or for the end product (their grade or score) can short-change kids from learning the gloriously essential quality of persistence as well as reduce their resilience muscle and desire to take on challenges. Colombia University and Stanford University. 

* Lowers grades: When researchers tried to raise the grades of struggling college  students by showering them with comments aimed to feel better about themselves their grades got worse not better. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology

* Reduces kid motivation. By age 12 kids believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did something well-but actually lack the ability. In fact, teens discount praise so much (perhaps because they’ve been so over-praised) that they believe it’s a teacher criticism-not praise-that really conveys their positive belief in a student’s ability. Wulf-Uwe Meyer Study.  

* Triggers shame and lowers self-worth: Praising kids-especially those with lower self-esteem-for their personal qualities (“You’re such a great person!”) rather than their efforts may make kids feel more ashamed if they fail and lower-not raise-their self-esteem. University of Netherlands.


4 Signs Your Kid May Be Over-Praised

In all fairness, for years parents have been encouraged to “praise” their kids — and to do so lavishly. Reams of parenting books stress the value of giving kids all those accolades and acknowledgements–al those “Good job!” comments help our kids develop self-esteem! In fact, this weekend I picked up a flyer from at a parenting event with this advice: “Praising kids is the best way to boost their self-esteem. If you catch yourself saying a negative comment, remember the 5:1 Formula. ‘Kids need five positive comments for every negative comment they hear.”  (I strongly advise you not to ignore that advise). Most of us are guilty of over-praising so how do we know if we’re praising our kids too much? Here are signs of over-praising I shared on TODAY.

1. Self-Centered:  I did great, Mom!  The child is frequently praised individually so he forgets the contributions of others in the group or his team effort. Instead, he focuses on his plays, efforts, goals, etc. Listen for the pronouns of “Me and I” instead of “He, she, you, or we” in the child’s vocabulary. 

2. Praise-Dependent:  “Do you like it mommy?”  The child is so used to hearing adults praise that he now depends on those accolades to jump start his effort and needs your approval for self-maintenance.

3. Expects Accolades:  “Aren’t you going to tell me, ‘Good job?’”  The child has heard your “Good job” so frequently that the praise no longer is meaningful. The child just expects you to say, “Atta boy!” regardless of whether it’s deserved.

4. Over-Competitive:   “But I’m better than her and got a higher grade.”  The child has heard praise so often and needs the accolades to maintain her own self-image. The danger is that the child can begins to tear others down to feel better about herself.

The Right Ways to Praise 

 Words do matter – and by and large praise issued the right way can be an effective, positive motivator for our children. The right praise motivates our kids to learn,  stretches persistence and boosts resilience. The good news there are simple ways to turn ineffective praise around. Just a simple word switch may seem subtle but can have a big impact on children’s development.

So let’s suppose  you admit you’ve become a “Praise-Aholic” or you have an over-praised kid on your hands? Don’t despair, there are strategies you use can to wean you and your kid from depending on praise. Cutting back from an over-praising habit is often hard for the parent and child. I warn you: the two of you may go through a bit of “praise withdrawals.” Consistent commitment to switch how you praise your child is crucial to success. First, remember three simple but important components of effective praise.. I call them the 3S’s

3 S’s of Effective Praise

Be Specific. Generic “Good jobs!” don’t help kids learn to recognize what they right so they don’t know what to do to improve. But by highlighting what the child did right he is more likely to repeat the behavior. Just add “because” to your praise takes your words up a notch and helps the child know exactly what he did right: “Good job because you read all the directions this time before you started.” “Atta boyyou hit a double because you kept your eye on the ball.”

Be Short. The amount of praise isn’t what makes the difference on kids. One sentence delivered the right way can motivate behavior.

Be Sincere. Beware of back-handed praise of empty flattery. Only young kids-under the age of 7-take praise at face value. Kids do pick up on our false praise. Be sincere in your delivery and make sure the child’s earned the accolade.

The very next time your kid does something noteworthy, try one of these tricks that nurture your kid’s internal motivation by putting the success back inside her corner.

The right words can stretch our children’s motivation, resilience, and persistence and even have kids more likely to take on challenges and not give up! The key is to help our kids develop internal motivation and not wait for us to pat them on the back and say “Good Job.” Here are the four ways to do it:

Stress Effort (Not Smarts or the End Product)

A Columbia University study of more than 400 fifth graders olds found that when kids were praised for their intelligence (“You’re so smart!” they became less likely to attempt new challenges. But when praised for their efforts (“You’re working so hard!”) they actually worked longer and harder. The reason? Kids don’t feel they have control over their intelligence-so why bother, but effort they put into the task is something they can control. Whether your kid is doing a math task, practicing violin, or working on his karate chops stress effort – not their intelligence. The key is to emphasize your child’s effort and hard work, and not the end product (like the grade, score or abilities). So instead of saying: “What was your grade?” Say: “You’re working so hard!” Or instead of: “You’re so smart!” Say: You’re improving because you’re putting in so much effort.”

Use a “Praise-Free” comment

State what you see with a simple that describes your child success: “You rode your bike all by yourself!” or simply, “You did it.”

Ask questions

Instead of praising, find out what pleased your child about her achievement “How did you learn to balance yourself without the training wheels? Or “What was the hardest part about writing that report?” Nothing else needs to be said

 Switch from “I” to “you”

The simple pronoun switch in your praise takes the emphasis off of your approval and puts more on the child regulating her actions. Instead of saying: I’m really proud of how hard you worked today.”  Switch to: You must be really proud of how hard you worked today.”

And when you do break yourself of the over-praising habit, remember to do one last thing: pat yourself on the back and tell yourself, “Good job!” (I’ll send you a trophy if you need one!)

Michele Borba

Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba 


Resources for This Article

Carol S. Dweck, “The Perils and Promises of Praise,” Educational Leadership, October 2007, Vol 65, No. 2. Carol Dweck’s research shows one of the biggest dangers of overpraising is that kids can become more competitive and more interested in tearing others down. “Image maintenance” becomes their motivation. Po Bronson article: “The Power (and Peril)  of Praising Your Kids p. 6. Students who believe intelligence can be developed perform better: LS Blackwell, CS Dweck, and KH Trzensniewski, “Implicit Theories on Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention,” 2007, Child Development, vol. 78, Issue 1.

Diminishes grades: Cited by Sue Schellengarger, Finding the Just-Right Level of Self-Esteem for a Child, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 26, 2013.

Wulf-Uwe-Meyer study cited by Po Bronson, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids,” New York Magazine, Feb. 11, 2007, p. 6

American Psychological Association (APA) “Praising Children for Their Personal Qualities May Backfire.” ScienceDaily 

B. Donald: “Babies Whose Efforts Are Praised Become More Motivated Kids, Say Stanford Researchers,” Stanford Report, Feb 12, 2013.