When being ‘incredibly good’ is bad for children

Providing inflated praise can actually harm children, a new study shows (Thinkstock)

WASHINGTON – Parents who heap lavish praise on children are likely doing a disservice, according to a new study.

This is especially true for young people with low self-esteem.

Telling a child who questions his or her abilities they are “incredibly good” or “perfect” often backfires, resulting in children who shrink from new challenges.

“I think parents have this natural tendency to think their children are the best and the greatest, and to use inflated praise,” says Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University.

Bushman and lead author Eddie Brummelman’s research will appear in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The problem comes when parents use inflated praise instead of appropriate praise when speaking to their children, says Bushman.

“And they’re especially likely to do that, our research shows, if the child has low self-esteem,” says Bushman.

While well-meaning, inflated praise has a negative effect on those most likely to be hurt by the compliments.

“If the child who has low self-esteem is just told he or she is “incredibly good” they don’t want to ruin that perception, and therefore avoid challenging tasks and instead choose easier tasks that will allow them to succeed,” says Bushman.

Parents may wonder what harm could come from telling their children they are wonderfully talented in all instances.

“Well, they’re not. They know they’re not,” says Bushman, “but they want to be perceived that way.”

Bushman says there isn’t necessarily a big difference between simple, appropriate praise and inflated praise.

“‘You made a beautiful drawing’ would be regular praise,” says Bushman. “‘You made an incredibly beautiful drawing’ would be inflated praise. So it’s just one word. But that word had a huge effect on behavior.”

Brummelman and Bushman’s findings suggest inflated praise puts too much pressure on children who doubt their abilities.

“If you tell a child with low self-esteem that they did incredibly well, they may think they always need to do incredibly well. They may worry about meeting those high standards and decidce not to take on any new challenges,” says Brummelman.

“Praise can encourage children, but it needs to be accurate and based on reality,” says Bushman.

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