Penguin Random House
September 18, 2015 2:41 PM EDT

For many years, the conventional wisdom has been that praising a child at every opportunity boosts confidence and self esteem. In a 2015 cover article for Southwest magazine entitled “Enough Already! Praise Gets Heavy, Why Can’t We Stop?” Heidi Stevens writes: “[R]eckoning with failure is key to kids’ growth, but they’re buried in [sic] mountains of flattery.” But if praise is so beneficial, why would parents want to cut back?

In recent years, new research has shown that the wrong kind of praise—and too much praise—actually undermine confidence. Worse, unearned praise and nonspecific praise will derail natural development of resilience and perseverance.

One of the leading researchers in this area is Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford University. A study she completed on fifth-graders illustrates the point that the wrong kind of praise can actually backfire. In this study, children were given problems that required effort to solve but were relatively easy, so that most were able to get the correct answers. Afterward, half the students were told they were smart, and the other half were praised for their effort (“You worked hard!”). Then the students were given a choice of taking on more difficult problems or a test just like the first one, which they now knew they could do (that is, they were not going to learn anything new). Ninety percent of the children praised for effort were eager to take on the harder problems, but a majority of those who were simply told they were smart stuck with the easier problems they already knew they could do. Scientists argue that simply telling children they are smart—or awesome, or geniuses—actually sets them up to keep from making mistakes that will undermine the image of being “smart.”

But moderating praise is easier said than done. All parents want their children to know how terrific they are, no matter what happens, but this must be balanced against the need to foster their development. In the case of praise, the old saying “You can’t have too much of a good thing” is, in fact, false. Too much praise transforms a good thing into a bad thing.

It is important to know when to deliver praise and when not to, and to understand what form this praise should and should not take. If a child is praised for trivial, commonplace efforts and events (“Wow, way to go, you woke up this morning!”), your praise will lose its reward power and simply become part of the background noise. Why work for something you will get anyway, regardless of whether or not you try? Nonspecific praise like “You are awesome!” also undermines confidence, because a child has no way of knowing what this really means (awesome why? as opposed to what?) and what it takes to achieve “awesomeness.”

Let’s look at what makes praise a positive reward and at its role in increasing confidence, resilience, and perseverance. Remember that a reward must increase a target behavior or it is not a reward!

In fact, if the target behavior decreases, what you think is a reward is actually a punishment. Studies on the “you are smart” and “you are awesome” forms of praise show that even though the words are positive, the desired outcome (more exercise of intelligence or continued good behavior) is reduced, so the praise actually functions as a punishment. Also bear in mind that any reward, when delivered too often, loses its power to shape behavior. The technical term for this is satiation. Praise delivered too often can do the same thing. It is not at all unusual for children as young as seven to “tune out” a doting parent’s praise: They have become satiated with it.

Also bear in mind that parental attention and response are an inherent part of intuitive parenting and can be powerful rewards in themselves. When a child brings you her latest finger painting, suppress the urge to say “You are the next Picasso!” and instead ask her what she drew (if you can’t tell), why she picked the colors she did, what she was thinking about when she painted the picture, and so on. In short, show a genuine interest in her painting.

This is a “praise transaction,” intuitive parenting style. All people, especially children, enjoy having someone who is interested in and curious about us and what we are doing engage us in this way.

Remember, the goal of praise should be to increase desired behaviors, in this case having a child continue to express herself creatively in positive ways. In the long run, you want your child to gain confidence in expressing herself, to persist in creative endeavors, and to be resilient when encountering obstacles, challenges, and other people’s differing perceptions (“Why do you think I could not tell that this is a picture of an elephant?”). Those behaviors and skills, not empty praise, are what will foster your child’s self-esteem in the long run.

Remember, too, that your attention to and interest in what your child is doing can remain a form of praise even when he or she makes a mistake or fails to achieve a particular goal. In fact, these moments provide a valuable opportunity to reward persistence and resilience by praising effort and encouraging a child to try again or try another approach. Your continued engagement shows your child that mistakes are not the end of the world and don’t make him or her any less intelligent or less “awesome” in your eyes.

Teen years can be especially challenging because teens, by nature, will push the limits. Their developmental “task” at this age is to separate from you and become independent, but their early efforts to do so often mean simply rebelling against the parents they also remain dependent upon, and against any and all rules their parents have established. You may have worked hard to foster persistence in your child; now your teen may demonstrate how well they have learned that skill by persisting in testing your patience and your boundaries! It is better to have a few simple rules, and to enforce them, than to constantly nag or make threats that you have no intention of following through on. Taking away privileges is effective only if you actually take them away—and if they do have the privilege in the first place. But bear in mind that the goal is to help build your child’s good character rather than to arbitrarily assert your authority for its own sake.

Of course, all of this is the result of starting off with intuitive parenting from birth. Children will naturally take on more and more discipline and responsibility and gain self- confidence if they are learning these traits from their earliest years. Because their intelligence is based on real knowledge rather than memorizing rote test items, and because they’ve been encouraged to keep trying when they make a mistake and have learned to successfully overcome challenges and setbacks from their earliest years, self-confidence, resilience, and persistence will be a lifelong part of their character. Intuitive parents keep their focus on patiently nurturing their child into adulthood. Confidence, persistence, and resilience are important lifelong traits that will serve a child well in school, on the athletic field, and in building friendships. They will remain important for young adults in their first jobs, when they go to college, pursue a rewarding career, form committed relationships, and even become parents themselves!

Adapted from The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child Is You by Stephen Camarata, PhD with permission of Current, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (c) Stephen Camarata, 2015.

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