3 Secret Ingredients to Effective Praise
Facebook is the social self-esteem metric of our time. Within seconds we know whether we’re liked, loved, hated, or popular. With 1.55 billion monthly users, Facebook proves the power of immediate and specific feedback beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Between games, social media, and Google there’s no way we humans can match the lure of instant gratification.
Still as parents, we have a responsibility to give feedback to children in a way that encourages growth mindset, maintains self-esteem, and informs behavior and learning.
When I was growing up, self-esteem wasn’t really a thing. Criticism was used more than praise. Compliments were usually given through a fixed mindset view, focusing on natural talent, while traits such as perseverance or effort were mostly overlooked.
That is until the self-esteem movement in the 1970s. With the publishing of Nathaniel Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem self-esteem became all the rage. Over the next three decades, parents were encouraged to give children large amounts of praise, whether earned or not, in hopes of building children’s positive self-esteem.
Unfortunately, research is showing negative effects for an overindulgence of praise.
Scholars from Reed College and Stanford reviewed over 150 praise studies. Their meta-analysis determined that praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy. The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions.”
Dweck’s research on overpraised kids strongly suggests that image maintenance becomes their primary concern—they are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down. A raft of very alarming studies illustrate this. ~Po Bronson How Not to Talk to Your Kids
It seems unauthentic praise leads to children who are over concerned with people pleasing and maintaining image.
The good news is research also shows praise can be a positive, motivating influence. There are strategies we can utilize that will help children learn and grow in a healthy way.
Praise given with the following considerations provides a way to give feedback through praise.
Use praise that is specific and shows children exactly why they are being praised.
- Johnny, you’re doing a great job sitting quietly.
- Wow, Alexa, you knew 7 out of 10 of your math facts!
- Jose, it looks like you’ve tried working this problem in 3 different ways. Excellent job persevering!
- Susan, I appreciate you taking the trash out for me this morning.
Kids are perceptive little humans. While children under 7 years old receive praise at face value, kids over 7 recognize agendas. They know when they’re being praised for authentic reasons and when they’re not.
Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well.~ Po Bronson
Give praise that is real and focused on characteristics children have control over. Praising characteristics such as effort, kindness, and problem solving provide feedback children or others may not recognize.
The trick here is to praise often, while also allowing space for children to learn on their own. No one receives praise for everything they do well in life. Overpraising leads to unrealistic expectations.
Cloninger has trained rats and mice in mazes to have persistence by carefully not rewarding them when they get to the finish. “The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”~Po Bronson
Self-esteem is important, but not the most important variable in raising responsible adults. Children need guidance and feedback while they learn to negotiate life.
Every parent has a unique parenting style determined by our upbringing and value systems. The way we give praise is often a subconscious habit.
Changing our own behaviors can be challenging, but I know from experience these strategies are worth the effort. Not only do they work, they also help maintain positive relationships between parents and children.
Over the next few days, try some of the strategies. I promise it will be worth the effort.
Think about your beliefs about self-esteem and praise. Does the research highlighted in this article conflict with or reinforce your views? Why? Please share your thoughts below.