Can excessive parental praise turn good kids into bullies?

Praising kids all the time might lead to inflated self-esteem and low regard for others. Flickr/ymc_photos

When most people picture the typical school bully, they think of a kid who is likely to have been bullied themselves. A child with low self-esteem who is trying to make themselves feel better by picking on others.

But in fact, parents who continually and indiscriminately praise their children could be running the risk of giving their kids an inflated sense of self, leading to bullying behaviour.

Cotton wool kids

Praising children is an important part of parenting, children need confidence to strive for both academic and personal success. But when parents overly praise their children they can convince them that negative outcomes don’t exist – that anything and everything they do is praiseworthy.

Parents often do this for the right reasons – they want their children to feel good about themselves. But parents who overly praise run the risk of artificially enhancing their child’s self-esteem.

High self-esteem of this kind has been linked to low levels of empathy and respect towards others. The work of Professor Jean Twenge suggests that young people may be developing higher levels of narcissism. Some children who think this highly of themselves develop a strong sense of their own entitlement, focusing more on their own needs. Many then feel that bullying others is acceptable.

How much praise is too much?

There is a fine line to be drawn here and it is quite often the type of praise that is important. Instead of indiscriminately praising their child, parents can give evidence-based feedback that helps their child develop a realistic self-knowledge.

For example, when a child has worked hard on making a birthday card. You could point out their persistence and that it looks great. But praising all the time whether they have shown effort or skill does not help them better understand themselves.

I would encourage teachers and parents to reconsider their focus on enhancing self-esteem and instead teach the skills, values and attitudes that will help young people to develop resilience and self-respect.

Research studies over the past 30 years have not been able to demonstrate that trying to enhance students’ self-esteem leads to significant improvement in their academic achievement or behaviour.

Self-esteem vs self-respect

Self-respect and self-esteem are similar in some ways but they are not the same thing. Self-esteem is a person’s evaluation of their worth as a person and it can range from low to high. Self-esteem can fluctuate because it is more dependent than self-respect on external feedback.

High self-esteem is based more on self-belief than on evidence and facts. Self-respect means accepting or approving of one’s own character and conduct. It is based more on facts and self-knowledge.

People who have self-respect are more likely to have clear moral values and treat others with respect, acting in ways that are protective of their safety and personal reputation.

They see themselves as equal to other people while still acknowledging differences. They also feel satisfied about their achievements but avoid being arrogant about them and balance pride with humility. They are resilient, accept themselves as imperfect and continue to be self-accepting in spite of difficulties, mistakes, and failures.

They prefer to receive positive feedback but are not controlled by it. They respect and weigh up other people’s comments but also have respect for their own judgements.

Parents can help their children to develop self-respect by modelling and teaching these skills and attitudes in the home.

If strongly expressed, parental disapproval for mistreating and bullying can discourage their child from bullying others. This focus, rather than indiscriminate praise is the best way for kids to navigate through life.