Education

A parenting paradox: You can harm your child with praise

Muscogee County School District psychologist Melanie Klema comments on studies that show we can actually harm our children mentally and emotionally if we praise them improperly. She suggests ways for parents to constructively praise their children when they succeed.
Muscogee County School District psychologist Melanie Klema comments on studies that show we can actually harm our children mentally and emotionally if we praise them improperly. She suggests ways for parents to constructively praise their children when they succeed. rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com

Now that we’re a few weeks into the new school year, students again are excitedly sharing with their parents and guardians good news about good grades.

And parents and guardians are responding with what they think is the appropriate quantity and quality of praise. But in the world of psychology, even what seems like a completely positive compliment might have a negative impact.

“Praise can be utilized as an effective tool in building feelings of self-esteem and self-worth in children and adolescents,” Muscogee County School District psychologist Melanie Klema told the Ledger-Enquirer in an e-mail. “In fact, children need to hear encouragement to build their self-esteem and develop self-confidence. However, if inappropriately utilized, praise can also impact a child or adolescent negatively, with ongoing implications for long-term success.”

According to a 2013 study led by Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, “praising effort, not talent, leads to greater motivation and more positive attitudes toward challenges.”

According to a 2012 review and synthesis of studies by Mark Lepper of Stanford and Jennifer Henderlong of Reed College, “praise may serve to undermine, enhance or have no effect on children’s intrinsic motivation, depending on a set of conceptual variables.

“Provided that praise is perceived as sincere, it is particularly beneficial to motivation when it encourages performance attributions to controllable causes, promotes autonomy, enhances competence without an overreliance on social comparisons, and conveys attainable standards and expectations.”

Understanding the delicate balance, here are Klema’s tips for proper praise:

1. Consider developmental level

“Very young children often thrive on praise, while older children may interpret praise negatively,” Klema said. “Children do not like praise that evaluates them or any kind of social praise that compares them to other children.”

2. Be sincere

“Praise is often a parent’s reaction to the perceived success of their child,” Klema said. “However, it should never be utilized to manipulate a child to comply with the parent’s request. It should be used as a motivating tool, to enhance the intrinsic ability of the child, which will foster a successful, intrinsically motivated and independent child, both at home and at school.”

3. Praise only traits the person can change

“Descriptive praise can be effective,” Klema said. “This means that the child knows exactly what the parent means and is saying. For example, a child can be praised for complying with directions to clean his room or help with a chore. Praise can also be effective in reinforcing good behavior and extinguishing negative behavior.”

4. Praise for mastery, not completion

“When learning a new skill, or starting a new task, it may be helpful to praise a child for their effort and not the outcome,” Klema said.

5. A little bit goes a long way

“Over-praising children and adolescents, as tempting as it may often be to parents, can often lead to difficulties, resulting in the opposite effect than intended,” Klema said. “This may be true when the reality, ability and the accomplishments of the child do not meet the expectations of the praise meted out.

“This may lead to negative consequences, such as feelings of inadequacy, lack of coping skills, lack of problem-solving skills, and fear of failing. Instead of teaching them independence and coping skills, the inappropriate use of praise may enable children and create a sense of entitlement in them. Socially, over-praising can often embarrass a child. This is especially true of older children.”

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