It is a well-known fact that parenting does not come with a manual of standard procedure (which would indeed be helpful) and at times, various topics arise which make parents second-guess themselves. Recently, the topic of praise and narcissism has been at the forefront of social media and sensationalized pop-culture blogs. However, what is missing is an expert opinion on the matter based upon a combination of empiricism and years of experience with hundreds, even thousands of children. What often happens is that parents are left confused, as they are being told what not to do with no direction of what to do and how to do it. This particular article will address the topic of praise and sense of self in children so that parents will have a better understanding of praise and are able to be purposeful in interactions with children.
What Is Praise?
If you ask someone from a previous generation, (1950's-60's) about praise, it is likely that their experience with praise was minimal. They may say, "No one ever praised me and I turned out okay", or "Praise has made children into wimps, why do you need to praise a child for something they are supposed to be doing anyway?" On the other hand, there may be pervasive feelings of neglect, "My parents never told me they loved me", "I wish I had someone to believe in me, I might have done more with my life." Whatever the thought, it is apparent that praise or lack thereof, can have a long-lasting impact on individuals (Bandura, 1982).
The online dictionary, Wikipedia, defines praise to include both the evaluator (parent) and recipient (child). Praise is different from feedback or recognizing a child for an accomplishment, as it is a more general phenomenon. In addition, praise can have the same content but a different interpretation. Praise is interpreted based upon both participants and can be interpreted differently based upon the age and developmental level of the recipient.
Why is Praise Necessary?
Praise has positive effects on children and impacts self-esteem, motivation, and the overall sense of self. Although praise has positive effects, it does not necessarily determine how the child will view themselves in the future (Youngs, 1991). The current debate on praise suggests that too much praise can contribute to narcissism, lower the ability to be resilient, and even foster low self-esteem. For example, a child who is praised constantly about personal attributes (i.e. "you're the smartest kid around", "don't worry about them, they're just jealous") will soon realize that these statements are false, which results in confusion and mistrust of the deliverer of the praise (usually a parent). On the other hand, children who receive no praise are at an instant disadvantage and are left to the opinions of peers (who are generally critical) to determine their self-worth, which can lead to serious issues later on in life including clinical depression, anxiety, and even personality disorders (Rohner, 2004). So what is a parent do?
What You May Not Know About Praise
Specific Praise is More Effective
Children are not perfect, and they will make several mistakes and experience many failures as they grow and learn. Specific praise allows children to attribute accomplishments and failures to externalizing factors and not to a faulty self (Tangney & Dearing, 2002). For example, when a child earns a good grade instead of saying "You're so smart" you can say "I am so proud of you for studying hard to earn an A, great job!" This allows for the child to not internalize failures. If they receive a bad grade, and the praise is general, they might interpret the bad grade as "You're so dumb" instead of "You earned this grade because you didn't study as hard as you could have. Now you know what to do the next time. I know you can do it!"
Consistent Praise Can Be Helpful to Self-Esteem
Praise should be consistent and on a regular basis but not so much where the child is unable to complete a task without expecting verbal praise. The exception is for infants and toddlers. Probably up until about age 4, excessive praise is healthy and necessary due to their developmental level. Once a child becomes school age, they have to learn to exist in the real world where both failures and accomplishments are real, and normal, and to be expected (Assor, Roth, & Deci, 2004). By age 8 children should be developing intrinsic motivation, which means they perform not just for external rewards (praise, tokens, gifts, etc) but because they have developed their own personal goals and ideas of who they are and how they want to impact their environment (Cimpian, 2013). So, an eight year old child should study hard because a "good grade" makes them feel good, not solely because a good grade will make mommy or daddy happy. Parents can help a child develop a sense of self by allowing them to be independent and allowing them to experience failure and natural consequences, and to also make mistakes. Constantly rescuing a child after a certain age will foster dependency, anxiety, and self-doubt.
Balanced Praise Prevents Confusion
Praise should be realistic and age-appropriate (Damon, 1996). For example, while praising a five year old for independently tying her shoes is acceptable, praising a neurotypical twelve-year old for doing the same would have a different outcome. Praise will be different for every child, therefore communicating with the child and finding a way to learn their true personality will facilitate lasting bonds. Some parents find themselves caught up in social praise where they might praising a child just because a peer is being praised. In these cases the use of non-verbal praise such as a thumbs up, a wink, or even a smile is just as effective. That way, approval can be shown without the feel of competition, which then makes praise disingenuous.
Genuine Praise Increases Trust
Just like parents know when children are lying, children know when parents are lying. Children desperately need to be able to trust their parents, otherwise they will rely solely on others for information, which can be quite risky and even dangerous at times (Kamins & Dweck, 1999). It is important to remember that with children, everything should be in the context of what is developmentally appropriate (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002). For example, if a two year old scribbles on paper and asks, "Mommy is this good?", it is expected that 'mommy' will go on and on about how great and perfect the drawing is. However, if an 8 year old effortlessly scribbles, and asks if the drawing is good, a parent might say, "Wow, that looks colorful and abstract. Tell me what the drawing is all about." If children suspect that you constantly lie, they might feel as if they are so "bad" that even their own parents can't tell them the truth. The easiest way to be genuine is to just do it, and the more conversations that are had with the child, the easier it will become.
With all of the debate about praise, it is important that praise isn't eliminated all together. Praise is essential. The most important thing to remember is that getting to know your child as an individual can create a long-lasting and healthy parent-child bond. Sometimes parents see their children as extension of themselves or as someone who will accomplish the things they were unable to, but this may backfire and foster mistrust in the relationship. It is imperative for parents to be as mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy as possible, otherwise, bonding with the child and helping them build a healthy sense of self will be more difficult than it has to be. Meaningful praise and praising effort can be just as effective as the actual success. Parents who are both warm as well as demanding are able to find a balance, and therefore are able to capture the true essence of what praise is all about.
Assor, A., Roth, G., & Deci, E. L. (2004). The emotional costs of parents' conditional regard: A self-determination theory analysis. Journal of Personality, 72, 47-88.
Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37, 122-147.
Cimpian, A. (2013). Generic statements, causal attributions, and children's naive theories. In M.R. Banaji & S. A. Gelman (Eds.), Navigating the social world: What infants, children, and other species can teach us (pp. 269-274). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Damon, W. (1996). Greater expectations: Overcoming the culture of indulgence in our homes and schools. New York, NY: Free Press.
Henderlong, J., & Lepper, M. (2002). The effects of praise on children's intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 774-795.
Kamins, M. L., & Dweck, C. S. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: Implications for contingent self-worth and coping. Developmental Psychology, 35, 835-847.
Rohner, R.P. (2004). The parental "acceptance-rejection" syndrome: Universal correlates of perceived rejection. American Psychologist, 59, 830-840.
Tangney, J.P., & Dearing, R. L., (2002). Shame and guilt. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Youngs, B. B. (1991). How to develop self-esteem in your child: Six vital ingredients. New York, NY: Fawcett Columbine.