The REAL Impact of Praising Children
Many people intuitively believe that praise leads to high self-esteem and a feeling of specialness, which in turn results in greater prospects for success and happiness. Do the facts support this? Surprisingly, links between high self-esteem and academic performance are questionable at best and seem to lower academic achievement at worst. How can this be?
In Self-Compassion, professor Kristin Neff says that “self-esteem is a side-effect of success, the consequence of healthy behaviours rather than the cause. Success leads to self-esteem, not the other way around, and artificially boosting it doesn’t work.” This has support from Carol Dweck: “It’s a mistake to believe that you can simply hand children self-esteem by telling them how smart and talented they are. We cannot boost children’s self-esteem by protecting them from failure.”
Artificial attempts to boost self-esteem can result in self-absorption, an overreliance on praise and reward, grade inflation, and a need to see ourselves as better than others. High self-esteem does not reduce anxiety. It tends to be comparative, excluding 50% of people from being above average. Parents like to think of their children as being special, and tell them so regularly. Unique is one thing, but children interpret ‘special’ as being better than others.
Most schools habitually use praise as an attempt to improve self-esteem assuming it to be a good thing. Dweck refers to one study where the students doing the least amount of homework and receiving the lowest grades were receiving by far the most praise. This conveys “you’re clearly not very smart so congratulations on reaching this mediocre level”. Excess praise can cause low-effort/low achievers to believe that they are as competent as the higher achievers, resulting in an impression of little need to improve their performance. Praising students regardless of their performance encourages a belief that effort doesn’t matter.
This view of praise and self-esteem can be difficult to digest. It takes courage to consider new ideas and to reconsider assumptions. Well-intentioned though it might be, unearned and over-praise from adults does not produce the desired long-term outcomes.
The problem with some school-based methods to boost self-esteem is they don’t distinguish between healthy and unhealthy self-esteem. Teachers use indiscriminate praise, focussing on the child’s level of self- esteem, not on why or how it gets there. Thus, many children come to believe they deserve compliments no matter what they do.
– Kirstin Neff
In fact, the reverse seems to be true. In a Wall Street Journal article Kay Hymowitz concludes:
And what do 15,000 studies show? High self-esteem doesn’t improve grades, reduce anti-social behaviour, deter alcohol drinking or do much of anything good for kids. In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be counterproductive. Many children who are convinced that they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work. Others are troubled by the anxiety of adults who feel it necessary to praise them constantly.
Iain McGilchrist continues “high self-esteem is positively correlated with a tendency to be unrealistic, to take offence too easily, and to become violent and demanding if one’s needs are not met”. High self-esteem and healthy self-esteem are not the same thing. One study found that school athletes who received the most praise from their coaches in time became least confident in their athletic skills. This may seem counter-intuitive, the reasons explaining it are logical. Students can tell when a teacher doesn’t believe in their potential. Praise is
often the first sign. Superfluous praise can be interpreted by a student as indicative of low expectation; that little more is expected of them. Similarly, students interpret teacher sympathy or pity in response to failure, as indicative of lack of
The alternative is for teachers to encourage persistence and examination of learning strategies: “How did you prepare for this? What could you do differently next time? Let’s learn from this so we can improve.” Praise can lull students into accepting lower standards, and mislead students into thinking they are doing better than they are. Over-the-top compliments can be received as patronising and an insult to one’s capability. Critical feedback, though, sends the message that one is capable of better performance. Whilst the link between self-esteem and achievement is weak, the link between autonomous competence, or self-efficacy, is powerful.
The only way to escape the personal corruption of praise is to go on working. – Einstein