Great Good Job, Kids!

Carlin Flora delves into the complicated world of praise studies, which investigate how children react to adult feedback. She cites a study published earlier this year that shows that “overpraise (That’s incredibly beautiful! versus That’s nice!) can be harmful for children with low-esteem, but be helpful for those with high self-esteem”:

First, the study confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that parents would be more likely to overpraise children with low self-esteem than those with high self-esteem. …

[T]hey had children between the ages of eight and 12, all previously rated for self-esteem, visit an art museum. The children were asked to paint pictures, which were then critiqued by a supposed ‘professional painter’. As a final step, they were asked whether they wanted to attempt a second, more difficult drawing exercise or a relatively easy one. All children receiving inflated praise viewed that praise as sincere, regardless of their level of self-esteem. Yet as predicted, children with low self-esteem who received inflated praise were less likely to accept the difficult challenge than their counterparts who received non-inflated praise. On the other hand, children with high self-esteem who received inflated praise were more likely to choose the challenging task than their counterparts who received non-inflated praise.

It makes sense, since people with high self-esteem are generally self-promoting and seek out situations to demonstrate their abilities, while those with low self-esteem are afraid of failure and avoid situations that might reveal their worthlessness. The authors write: ‘Thus, inflated praise can cause children with low self-esteem to avoid crucial learning experiences – a process that may eventually undermine their learning and performance.’ Here’s the complicated flip-side, though: ‘Non-inflated praise may reduce fear of failure for children with low self-esteem and thus foster their challenge-seeking, but it might fail to provide sufficient impetus to seek challenges for children with high self-esteem.’