In the last couple of decades, self-esteem has been a hot topic when it comes to kids. Entire school programs have been changed in order to boost student’s self-esteem. Trophies are given to children, not for actually excelling in a task, but for simply showing up, so that kid’s self-esteem won’t be damaged by having to endure a loss. Children are constantly being told “good job” as well as receiving an enormous amount of praise for doing nothing more than being a typical kid.
There’s a lot of debate at the PTA and on the sports field over what “self-esteem” actually means. Self-esteem is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as (1) A confidence and satisfaction in oneself, (2) An exaggerated opinion of one’s own abilities.
A new study says that parents of children with low self-esteem may want to pull back on the inflated praise because all the ego stroking may be doing more harm than good. Researchers found that children who have low self-esteem may actually achieve less when they receive too much praise. The team said that children with high self-esteem who are constantly lauded thrive, but those with lower self-esteem tend to run away from new challenges.
“Inflated praise can backfire with those kids who seem to need it the most – kids with low self-esteem,” said Eddie Brummelman, lead author of the study that was published in the journal Psychological Science.
Researchers said that inflated praise was characterized as containing an additional descriptive adjective. An example might be a parent telling their child “You’re incredibly perfect at that task!” Phrases like “You are good at this” were considered simple praise, but parents who said, “You’re incredibly good at this” were placed in the inflated praise category.
The study included 114 parents, 88 percent of whom were mothers. The parents participated in the study with their child, and before the study began the researchers used a test to determine the child’s self-esteem.
Parents administered 12 math exercises to their child for the study, and afterwards they scored how well their child did on the tests. The sessions were videotaped, and the researchers used these recordings to count how many times the parents praised their child.
Researchers found that parents of children in the low self-esteem group gave their children twice as much inflated praise than parents of the high self-esteem children.
The most common embellished praise statements included “You answered very fast!” and “Super good!” and “Fantastic!” The most common non-inflated praise statements were “You’re good at this” and “Well done!”
The team noted that parents praised their child an average of about 6 times during the session, and about 25 percent of that praise was inflated.
“Parents seemed to think that the children with low self-esteem needed to get extra praise to make them feel better,” said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State. “It’s understandable why adults would do that, but we found in another experiment that this inflated praise can backfire in these children.”
So far it sounds like parents were just eager to assure their child that they were more than capable of handling the tasks. It’s something that many parents do almost out of habit. So, does all that extra praise really help?
In another experiment, 240 children were asked to draw a famous Vincent van Gogh painting and then received praise in the form of a note from someone identified as a professional painter. After the child received the note they were told to draw copies of other pictures that they could choose from. The children were given the option to either choose from pictures that were easy to do, or they could choose to draw more difficult pictures.
The team found after the second experiment that children with low self-esteem were more likely to choose the easier pictures if they received inflated praise in the note. Children with higher self-esteem were more likely to choose the more difficult pictures if they received inflated praise. Brummelman said children with low self-esteem may have gone for the easier challenge because they worry about meeting those high standards and decided not to take on any new challenges.
The lesson may be that children with low self-esteem need praise (like all of us), but require more realistic and simple praise. They may feel like the inflated praise puts too high an expectation on them, while the simpler praise feels more authentic.
“It goes against what many people may believe would be most helpful,” Bushman said. “But it really isn’t helpful to give inflated praise to children who already feel bad about themselves.”