Well-meant praise can ‘backfire’: child development researcher
The applause starts from the time we are just babies.
“Good job!” “Well done! “You did it!”
In western societies, we grow up with encouragement from parents, teachers, coaches and peers. But can certain types of praise actually discourage children from learning? Eddie Brummelman, a child development researcher at the University of Amsterdam, thinks so. He is one of the researchers behind a new study called The Praise Paradox: When and Why Praise Backfires in Children with Low-Self Esteem.
Over a five-year period ending in 2015, Brummelman and his co-researchers studied children between the ages of seven and 12 to determine how praise influences their decision-making. He chose children in that age group because he says they have the ability to evaluate themselves through others’ eyes and that makes praise particularly important to them.
“We studied praise because a lot of parents in western society believe that praise is an effective way of raising self-esteem,” Brummelman explained in a Skype interview with Global News. “They praise children often in an attempt to make them feel better about themselves because they believe high self-esteem is key to success and well-being. We wanted to study what types of praise do parents use to raise self-esteem and are these types of praise actually effective in raising self-esteem.”
The researchers found parents used two types of praise when encouraging their children: person praise and inflated praise. Person praise focused on personal qualities such as “You’re so smart!” Inflated praise over-emphasized encouragement, like “You made an incredibly beautiful drawing,” instead of “You made a beautiful drawing.”
“These types of praise backfire because they put pressure on children to live up to the high standards you have for them,” Brummelman said. “When you give praise that is focused on the person children feel that they should demonstrate they are indeed smart or great or wonderful, and when you give inflated praise, they think they should be perfect all the time.”
Watch below: Laurel Gregory explains how praise can backfire.
Brummelman recommends encouraging kids by focusing on the process of their achievement. In a blog summarizing his study, he writes, “Instead of praising children’s fixed qualities, celebrate the strategies they’ve used to achieve their outcomes. So when a child earns high grades in mathematics, praise the effort the child put into learning and practising to achieve such a wonderful outcome.”
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