Be careful with praise, it might be harmful
December 2, 2014  |  Written by Carlota Nelson

Helping our children cultivate a healthy self-esteem is one of the cornerstones of childhood education and one, which we have explored on numerous occasions here at The Toy Blog. In an article titled The Importance of Self Esteem, the mental image we have of ourselves begins when we are babies and determines how we solve problems and makes us more realistic so we enjoy life better. However, experts advise we must be careful with over valuing or praising our children too much. Instead of improving their self-esteem, placing them on a pedestal, could very well have contrary effects. Recent studies believe it´s a question of subtleties and being honest.

All the studies we´ve consulted agree that even though praise might be well intentioned, it can actually inhibit the mental image we have of ourselves and it can be just as harmful as not feeling valued. Phil Donahue, founder of Child Development Associates points out that “praise should be honest and sincere and focused on the child´s efforts, not on the outcome. It´s the quality of praise, no the amount, which helps children feel motivated, confident and able to face new challenges.”

The Power of Honesty. As parents it´s hard not to exaggerate when it comes to taking about or to our children. We want them to feel loved and valued, understood and supported. And all this is positive and necessary to cultivating a healthy self esteem. But when it comes down to praise, we must be honest and praise them when they, in fact, really deserve it. An article, published by Parenting Science, talks specifically about children who are mature enough and conscience of what motivations can indeed hide behind praise. “If they believe you´re not being honest, they will reject what we tell them or become susceptible of condescension.”

According to Jennifer Henderlong Corpus and Mark Lepper, two psychologists who have been analysing the effects that praise has on children, “false praise can actually hurt the perception our children have about their parents and may not want to make the effort to improve.” So if you´re looking to have your son cultivate his love for music, instead of telling him: “You´re a genius”, try this: “I can tell you´ve been practising” or “It sounds better than last week. Why don´t you try again?”  In other words, when we over exaggerate praise it can overwhelm us. And when it´s not truthful, we lose faith is the person who says it.


Quality vs. Quantity. Heather Hatfield, in an article published by WebMD, believes too much praise can actually reduce the importance of true success or the efforts we make. In fact, it might even make us lose interest all together. Because, in the end, no mater what we do and how we do it, we always receive the same stimulus. The key is too praise  less and better and according to Hatfield, all we need is to be specific.

The more Specific, the Better. A child with a healthy self-esteem knows what his strong and weak points are and learns to accept them. This child is tolerant, has the capacity of feeling empathy and owning a critical mind. When he makes a mistake instead of reacting like this: “I´m an idiot!” he this child makes statements like: “I don´t understand this” or “I don’t think I´m good at this.” In order to reason like this, he needs specific information.

If your daughter shows you a drawing done by her instead of simply saying: “I really love this drawing” why not add more detail with  “I can tell you´ve worked hard on this drawing” or I like how you´ve composed it and the use of colour”.

Praise the effort. Another study, led by Stanford University, proved that if we praise our children´s efforts, not their talent, “increases their motivation because it´s based on real attributes”. Carol S. Zweck, the professor who led this study and author of the book Mindset, explains that labelling them with words such as “Genius” doesn´t help them because later on, when they don´t get it right or it´s not perfect, they´ll think they are no longer the genius you´ve helped him think he is.

The good news is that our mission is much simpler than we make it out to be. We just have to recognize what our children enjoy doing and offer them our support and guidance with a real and appropriate motivation. And this implies avoiding the use labels or making exaggerated comparisons. 

To help them cultivate a healthy self esteem we should keep praising our children but honestly and being more specific. Their self-esteem should be based on the skills they learn to develop and on the merits they really feel they´ve accomplished.

Photo Credits: Charlotte

Photo Credits:  Kathy Sunderman

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