Children with low self-esteem respond worse to overpraise

Pushy parent. Nocibomber

Overly positive, inflated praise such as “terrific!”, “you did incredibly well!”, “perfect!” is very common in western countries. At first glance this might not seem a bad thing; heaping praise can only make people do better – right?

Parents often give such praise to children with low self-esteem, in an effort to boost their esteem. But this inclination can backfire, and make children with low self-esteem less ambitious.

What is inflated praise?

Praise is a written or spoken positive evaluation of someone’s traits, actions, or products. It becomes inflated when it contains an adverb (such as “incredibly”) or adjective (such as “perfect”) that indicates a very positive evaluation. “You made a beautiful drawing” is an example of a non-inflated praise, whereas “you made an incredibly beautiful drawing” is inflated. In research we carried out, due to be published in Psychological Science this month, we found that around 25% of all praise was inflated.

Our research suggests parents give inflated praise in an attempt to raise children’s self-esteem. Parents see low self-esteem in children as a worrisome problem, and they believe that inflated praise can cure this problem. So, if children have low self-esteem, parents might intentionally give them more inflated praise. We tested this idea in a series of studies.

In the first study, 712 participants read hypothetical descriptions of children with either high or low self-esteem, for example: “Sarah is often unhappy with herself. She has just made a drawing.” Participants then wrote down the praise they would give the child. We found that participants gave more inflated praise to children with low self-esteem than to children with self-esteem. In fact, they gave them almost twice as much inflated praise (33% versus 18% of praise was inflated).

In a second study, we tested the same hypothesis but this time in in-home observations of actual interactions between 114 parents and their children. After measuring the child’s self-esteem, we asked parents to administer 12 timed mathematics exercises to their child. As predicted, parents were more inclined to give their child inflated praise when their child had lower self-esteem.

For better or for worse?

But is this for the worse or for the better? Inflated praise actually conveys very high standards on the person it is given to. When children receive inflated praise, they might think they have to continue to meet these very high standards. Children with low self-esteem might fear that they will not be able to meet these standards, and therefore avoid challenges. But children with high self-esteem might want to demonstrate that they are able to meet these standards, and therefore seek challenges.

We tested this in a third study of 240 children. Again we started by measuring children’s self-esteem. We then got the children to create their own rendition of Wild Roses, a painting by Vincent van Gogh.

Go wild. Minke Wagenaar

After finishing their drawing, children were randomly assigned to receive either inflated praise, “you made an incredibly beautiful drawing!”, non-inflated praise, “you made a beautiful drawing!”, or no praise at all.

The children were then asked which pictures they wanted to draw next from pairs that consisted of one easy picture – with the proviso that though they wouldn’t make many mistakes but they “wouldn’t learn much either” – and a difficult picture where they risked many mistakes but would “definitely learn a lot too”.

As predicted, children with lower self-esteem who had received inflated praise were more likely to choose easier tasks, to avoid the risk of failure. Inflated praise, then, although well-intended can backfire in children with low self-esteem (who are most likely to receive it). Yet, it can benefit children with high self-esteem, providing them an impetus to seek challenges.

What else does inflated praise do?

Our study was the first to investigate inflated praise. There are many exciting questions that are still unanswered. For example, if parents primarily target inflated praise at children with low self-esteem, how does that make other children in the family feel? Does it make them feel jealous or just relieved for not being put under as much pressure?

And if children with low self-esteem receive inflated praise frequently for longer periods of time, does that eventually change their personality or mindset? For example, does it make them more withdrawn or afraid of failure?

Parents shouldn’t stop praising their kids. Our research shows, however, that it may be beneficial to think about how they phrase their praise. It is almost habitual for parents to give children with low self-esteem lots of inflated praise. But our findings suggest that it might be more beneficial to consider giving non-inflated praise instead. Even a single word, like “perfect” can feel quite large to children with low self-esteem, who fear that they cannot be perfect all the time.