Why praise is a problem with your childs resilience

Father of 6, author and psychologist Dr Justin Coulson has just launched a booked titled 9 Ways to a Resilient Child (ABC Books).  

Praise is often bandied around as the key thing to “build kids up” and make them resilient by doing so. But in this excerpt from Justin’s book he explains how praise when used in the wrong form can actually be detrimental to your child’s resilience.

Myth 5

Good praising: why praise is a problem in promoting resilience

Most of us would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. (Norman Vincent Peale)

You walk into a psychology laboratory to participate in an experiment about problem-solving. The researcher greets you, invites you to sit at a desk, and  after providing you with a brief overview of the study he hands you a booklet with a series of ten puzzles.

Each puzzle contains a table set up with three rows and three columns. A shape is in each of eight of the nine squares, and the shapes follow a pattern. There is nothing in the ninth square at the bottom right. Your job is to work out what the missing shape should look like, based on eight possible answers to the puzzle, displayed on the page underneath the table. One puzzle looks a little like the one on the following page.

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You are the only person participating in the experiment, so it is just you and the researcher in the room. He explains that you will have a total of five minutes to complete all ten puzzles. As you work through the matrices you think to yourself, ‘Wow, these are incredibly easy.’ And you’re right. The ten puzzles are the ten easiest in the book. Instead of taking five minutes to complete them, you take about two minutes, and as you watch the researcher mark your responses you feel very, very smart. You get all of them correct.

He looks at you, smiles and states, ‘Wow, you’re really smart at these. You got ten out of ten.’ At least, that’s what he says if you’re in the experimental group. The experimental group is being praised for excellent performance. The researcher is trying to make you feel smart for doing well. He’s praising your intelligence. There is also a control group who get different feedback, of the neutral variety. If you were in the control group you would have been told, ‘You got ten out of ten.’ That’s it. No praise. No smiles. Just a neutral reporting of your score.

Next the researcher hands you a second set of ten matrices. Once again you have five minutes to complete all ten puzzles. This time, however, you struggle. These ones are almost impossible! Your five minutes is up before you have attempted more than a few, and you discover you only achieved a score of one out of ten.

Ugh. You feel deflated – and defeated.

Regardless of whether you are in the experimental group (where praise was previously given) or the control group (where neutral feedback was delivered), the researcher states, ‘You got one out of ten on that set.’ Then he explains, ‘There’s just one more set of puzzles to complete. This time, you get to choose. Would you prefer to do another ten puzzles like the first ones you completed, or ten like the second set you completed?’

You know it’s a psychology experiment. You know that this is the moment of truth. But you really don’t know what he’s getting at or why he’s giving you a choice. And you don’t know how your choice will relate to any psychology theory. So, after pausing, you choose. And whether or not you were praised has a significant impact on the choice you make.

The ‘smart’ choice – or more accurately, the choice that smart people should make – is to take on the more challenging puzzles again. Scoring one out of ten offers tremendous opportunities for future learning and mastery. The ‘dumb’ choice is to request another ten simple puzzles where a high score is assured.

In 2003 I conducted this experiment at the University of Queensland. More than 100 participants from highly competitive university degrees came through my lab, one at a time. To ensure random allocation to the praise and the control groups, I praised every second person for their intelligence after the first set of matrices, while offering neutral feedback to every other person.

Consistent with previous research on young children, I discovered that praise changed participants’ mindsets. When people received praise for their intelligence, they were significantly more likely to choose the easy set of matrices when given a choice. Those who had been given neutral feedback consistently opted for the harder puzzles. Moreover, those who were praised scored significantly worse the second time they did their puzzles, regardless of which set they chose. It was as though my simple ‘Wow, you’re really smart’ statement placed a load of pressure on them that sabotaged their capacity to perform.

Participants who were not praised but who instead received neutral feedback typically embraced the opportunity to take on the extra challenge of the harder puzzles when given the option. I recall one young man looking at me and enthusiastically requesting, ‘I want to try more of those hard ones. There’s no point doing the easy ones. I’m not learning anything from them. I want to figure out those tough ones. They were challenging.’

Pumping up tyres

One of the most persistent myths in parenting generally, and specifically related to resilience, is that to boost wellbeing, self‑esteem and resilience, we need to pump up our children’s tyres. We need to praise them. Parenting experts consistently push praise as a permanent part of their platform for raising resilient children.85 If you look up ‘praise’ on the internet you will be inundated with well-meaning advice describing how many times we ought to praise children to help them to be resilient. The argument is that praise provides important scaffolding that helps children believe they are capable and competent. Praise is said to be a resilience booster because when children experience the all-too-certain setbacks of life, they can rely on our praise to sustain them and help them bounce back.

However, the idea that we should be catching our children doing something right and praising them for it may be less useful for resilience than we think. The research literature is far less effusive in its praise of praise. In fact, many studies just like mine point to praise as ineffective, or even downright dysfunctional.

What are the arguments for praise?

The first argument for praise is pretty simple. Ask just about any parent and they’ll tell you that praise is a reinforcer. It is designed to motivate children, and to show them that we appreciate them. As adults, we know that when we are praised, we generally feel good (although this is not always the case … I’ll address that shortly). And we have watched our children respond with added enthusiasm when they hear us praise them. So it makes them feel good too.

Secondly, one of the world’s most celebrated psychology researchers found that praise can boost self-efficacy. This is a person’s self-belief, or sense that they can accomplish what they set out to accomplish.86 Another two of the world’s esteemed psychology researchers acknowledge that praise can enhance feelings of competence and motivation – in the short term.87 Other scientists have identified that praise can increase the level of motivation a child feels and make them want to behave a certain way so they get a certain outcome.88 It can also act as an incentive to increase engagement in a task,89 and it can make a child believe they are as good as the person praising them says they are.90 Many of these studies that offer support for praise are old, with more recent research becoming increasingly nuanced, and increasingly critical of praise.

That said, praise is broadly accepted as important.

What are the arguments against praise?

The detrimental effects of praise are surprising, and have been studied for several decades now. One of the most interesting findings applies to children around age five, six or seven.

These children, when praised, will often decide that the reason they are being praised is not because they are great, but because they are not very good at all.91 The thinking goes: ‘If I’ve done well and I’m not getting praised, it’s because they expect it of me. They must think I’m smart. But if I’ve done well and I am getting praised, it’s because they were surprised, so they must think I’m dumb.’

While little children accept most of what they hear as gospel truth, when slightly older children hear us telling them how kind they are, or how smart, or how good at drawing or sharing they are, they feel judged, evaluated. This is particularly the case for children with low self-esteem. We give more effusive praise to the kids who ‘need it most’, and they seem to understand this. Kids with high self-esteem and resilience accept the praise with a shrug and a ‘Yep, I know.’ It doesn’t impact them at all. But those with low self-esteem and resilience have an internal argument. ‘Mum just told me I’m really smart. But she doesn’t know I just fluked that word on the spelling test.’

The more evaluative and inflated the praise, the more judged children feel, and the greater the negative impact.92 In one recent study, researchers considered the impact of inflated praise, as opposed to normal praise. Inflated praise is the kind of praise that goes over and above ‘good drawing’ or ‘nice picture’. Inflated praise is ‘Wow, that’s not just beautiful. It’s incredibly beautiful. You have a gift!’ Once again, parents give inflated praise because they think that their praise will elevate their child’s self-esteem. And it seems logical that children with lower self-esteem
would likely receive more praise – particularly of the inflated variety. The data shows that inflated praise is given about twice as much as regular praise when parents are working with a child who has low self-esteem. In this case, the praise is actually causing harm because the child is actively arguing against it and reinforcing negative self-beliefs. Inferences of low ability are bad for resilience and motivation.

The second way that praise might reduce our children’s resilience and wellbeing is that it can be seen as controlling. Whether we mean it or not, there can sometimes be an element of control or even manipulation as we try to socialise our children through positive feedback. This can create resistance on the one hand, or pressure on the other. This was shown in a study where people were praised for their performance of a task, and their performance on subsequent tasks suffered as a result of being praised. They felt they had to live up to the performance expectation that had earned them the praise, and they also became self-conscious.93

Praise can also leave children feeling that we are usurping their autonomy, perhaps because we don’t have the belief that they’ll do the right thing without our reinforcement. I overheard a school teacher say to her students, ‘I love the way that everyone is sitting so quietly and working so well.’ But several students were not doing that at all. She was using praise as a cover for coercion and manipulation. When we hear ourselves saying things like ‘Wow, good sharing’ or ‘Gee, great helping,’ there is a possibility that our comments could be interpreted as a gentle, sugar-coated form of control – not praise. This is a theme I’ll return to at the end of the chapter, because obviously much of our praise is not meant to be controlling, and often our children will not interpret it as such. The point here, however, is that sometimes it can be, and in these instances, praise is problematic.

Third, many researchers (and parents) have discovered that praise does lead to increased effort and motivation sometimes. But many studies have identified that once setbacks or failures arrive, children wonder whether the praise was a mistake. They feel they can’t live up to the expectation. The bar is too high. Praise sets up a label that creates pressure and leads to self-doubt. Children think, ‘I have to live up to that … but I can’t.’ Then they might take shortcuts, perhaps making themselves look foolish and incapable while trying to look smart or able. Praise creates a belief in self
that is contingent on performance or on the evaluations of others, and it decreases self-worth either in the moment (when self-esteem is low) or following setbacks and failures.94 I recall praising my children for sitting so nicely in the back seat of the car on a long trip. I was genuinely pleased, and was sincere. But I was also thinking that if I praised them and pointed out that I’d caught them doing something good they would feel reinforced for their behaviour. Instead, about 90 seconds later, they began bickering and hurting one another! Praising the positive backfired almost
instantly in that case, and soon they were getting my attention for all the wrong reasons.

Fourth, psychologists use the term over-justification of performance to describe what happens when a person does something because of the promise of a reward, rather than for the activity itself.95 It means that when children do something simply to get the praise, they’re not thinking about the activity. Thus, some children turn into praise junkies.96 And if the praise is not forthcoming, they wonder what is wrong with them – and they lose motivation to do things that might otherwise be worthwhile.

Fifth, and particularly concerning from a resilience perspective, praise shifts children’s (and adults’) locus of control from internal to external. Instead of feeling that they are capable and competent and are making good decisions for themselves, they begin looking to external sources for confirmation of their competence.97 They become unsure of themselves and seek external approval before they do things.

And sixth, praise can promote competition and comparison.98 The next chapter will describe why this is not what we want if we hope to have resilient children. Clearly, the evidence suggests we must rethink our ideas about praise being good for our children’s resilience and wellbeing.99

What’s the intention?

But let’s get out of the theory and look at praise in practice. Most of the praise I hear comes from parents who are honestly trying to reinforce ideal behaviour. They are sincere. And they certainly do not mean anything bad by their praise. They’re often genuinely enthusiastic and excited about their child’s accomplishment. I recall one young, well-intentioned, attentive mother exclaiming, ‘Great sharing’ when her three-year-old son offered a toy to a playmate. But there was something about her tone. She meant well. She was proud of her son – and she was being sincere and enthusiastic. But underlying this, there was a (potentially unconscious) attempt at control. This was reinforced a few moments later when she cried, ‘Great running’ as he chased a ball his playmate had kicked. Shortly after, she exclaimed he was ‘such a good boy’ and was doing some ‘great eating’ with his morning tea. This mum’s enthusiastic praise was sincere, but examined in light of the research there may have been an unintentional dark side to her praise – not from her, but in the way that her son interpreted and internalised it. Evidence suggests he could receive that praise as controlling and even manipulative.

The issue here is that praise may mask that a parent is (perhaps unintentionally) attempting to exert control over or manipulate a child to influence behaviour. When our intentions are sincere and our desire is to genuinely express our enthusiasm for our child’s accomplishment, then our meaningful descriptions of what we’re witnessing can be reinforcing. This is particularly the case with young children. But some parents cross a line. Their praise is less about their thrill at a child’s accomplishment, and more an overt statement designed to reinforce a desired behaviour. As I pointed out earlier, this praise can be received as controlling, and feel like an imposition on a child’s autonomy. It may leave the child feeling that he can’t sustain all of the great running, sharing, eating or whatever else he is praised for. And ultimately, it could turn the child into a praise junkie.

Praise the process, not the person.

Professor Carol Dweck, of Stanford University, published two highly influential articles in the late 1990s that impacted the way praise is viewed.100 These studies examined the way different forms of praise affect children’s motivation to work on challenging problems when they make mistakes. The ‘person praise’ groups were praised explicitly for their intelligence: ‘You must be smart at these problems.’ The ‘process praise’ groups were praised for their effort: ‘You must have worked hard at these problems.’ The remaining children were in the control group and received
no additional feedback. When praised for being smart, the kids were far more worried about their performance and how smart they seemed than when they were praised for process. This underscores several of the key concerns researchers have with praise. But process praise led to the children becoming interested in the activities themselves rather than the outcomes. When given free choice, the person-praised children showed clear preferences for easy, rather than challenging, problems. And they persisted less on the tasks, particularly after failure. To add insult to injury, they also enjoyed the tasks less. This led to them feeling like they actually weren’t any good at the task, despite the earlier praise. And some actually decided that they just weren’t very smart after all.

Other studies have clouded the picture somewhat, as children of different ages have been given different forms of praise. Most often, short-term benefits have been found, but the longer-term is what matters here. The outcomes for resilience are critical, and the weight of evidence seems to be accumulating against praising our children when we keep the long-term view in mind.101

Is praise good or bad for resilience?

So where does that leave us in relation to whether praise is good or bad for resilience?

Like most things that people claim are good for resilience, there is no good-quality research available where resilience is actually used as a measure. That is, no one has done a study to see whether praise actually affects resilience. The best we have are measures of the impact of praise on motivation, self-esteem and mindsets. In each case, the long-term outcomes of praise are neutral at best, and negative as a general rule.

Some people still feel that even though praise is said to be bad for kids in the research, it can’t really be that bad. After all, it feels good and we want to shower praise on our children. Being puritanical about not praising may seem too much for some. Therefore, drawing on the many studies that are on offer, if we want to get our praise right, so that we are not undermining resilience, motivation and wellbeing, we should keep the following five principles in mind:

First, don’t praise children for winning or being the best or being awesome. This is outcome-driven and ‘person praise’. This has been shown to lead to less effort and less perseverance, and ultimately this lowers resilience. Instead, focus on process, effort or learning. This builds intrinsic motivation and perseverance. Saying things like ‘I saw how hard you worked on that’ is much more positive than saying, ‘You’re the best!’

Second, non-controlling praise builds intrinsic motivation. It is an expression of delight and excitement. This is wonderful! It encourages autonomy and intrinsic motivation. When our praise is manipulative or agenda-driven, our children can sense that we are attempting to control them, and we reduce positive outcomes associated with resilience. Positive feedback that tells a child, ‘You look so excited’ is far less controlling than, ‘It makes me so happy when you do well’, or ‘You’re such a good boy.’

Third, when our praise provides positive information about how our children are doing then we may, in some circumstances, build our children’s sense of self-belief, which is great for resilience. Saying things like ‘I saw you practising and contentrating so hard in that recital’ is not controlling or comparison-focused. But if our praise conveys competence through social comparison, such as, ‘Great, you beat everyone in the class!’ we are likely to ultimately undermine competence, self-efficacy, self-worth and motivation. Resilience will suffer.

Fourth, praise that conveys high but realistic expectations or standards and that is descriptive can provide helpful guidance and assist in promoting task engagement. However, praise that promotes impossible standards, or that is given too easily (such as ‘Good running’ or ‘Good helping’) will ultimately backfire.102 Even when our child deserves it and has worked hard for it, there may be better ways to convey our feelings.

Fifth, and most importantly, praise has to be perceived as sincere if it is to be beneficial.

Putting it together

So how do we consolidate all of this? Praise is a tough form of feedback to get right. We want to be process-focused, non-controlling, non-comparing, descriptive and sincere! We can get it right, but it’s complicated. The price of getting it wrong can be steep, with our children’s resilience being a potential casualty.

Rather than praising, I recommend the following forms of feedback as ultimately superior:

Use gratitude instead of praise where possible. Of course, gratitude can be coercive and agenda-driven, but it is less likely to be when compared with praise. We are unlikely to excitedly say to our two-year-old, ‘Thanks for being such a good boy’ or ‘Thanks for running!’ Instead, we might say, ‘I really appreciated it when you shared with your sister (or friend). It made me grateful for you.’ Or ‘It makes me smile to see how much energy you have! And I’m grateful to see you enjoying yourself.’

When you feel the urge to praise, lean towards describing what you see rather than making big, sweeping, effusive statements about your child’s ability. Don’t say, ‘You’re a natural musician’. Instead try ‘I loved listening to the way you played that piece. You really seemed to be focused on feeling the music.’ Or ‘I’ve really noticed a big change in the way you played that song over the past week.’ This is aligned with the idea of process praise, and the evidence supports this approach.

Perhaps the best response to our children’s successes and efforts is to invite them to praise themselves. If a child asks, ‘Do you like my picture?’ you could say, ‘Yes, I do.’ But this may make them reliant on your evaluations and judgements to determine whether they’re doing fine or not. Alternatively you could thank them for it, or you might describe the effort you guess they’ve put into it. These responses might feel forced or contrived. The optimal response could be, ‘Why don’t you tell me what you like the most?’ Or ‘How do you like it?’  f a child aces a test, the temptation might be to say, ‘Wow, you’re such a braniac! I knew we had a future Nobel Prize winner in the family.’ But it might be more effective for our children’s motivation and resilience to invite them to do their own reinforcing. We could say, ‘How did you feel when you saw that result?’ Or ‘Wow. That must have been exciting. I remember you were really worried. How did you get an A on that test?’ These responses allow our children to tell us how excited they are, to emphasise the process they went through to achieve their outcomes, and to reinforce the principles that will help them succeed again in the future. And the responses will also help them through the tough times and setbacks. After our child has made his own assessment, we can add ours: ‘I was really excited about that too!’ or ‘You did an amazing job. I’m glad you can see that.’

Take-home message

The bottom line is that our intentions are critical, and to understand our intentions we must be deeply honest with ourselves. When our intentions are to control, then praise will typically have undermining effects that lead to negative outcomes. When our intentions are to sincerely and honestly express delight and celebrate our child’s achievement, that praise is unlikely to have that resilience-reducing results. It’s a myth that praise boosts resilience though. On the contrary, much of our praise will do precisely the opposite. There are better ways to provide feedback, and these will foster motivation, wellbeing and resilience far more effectively.

9 Ways to a Resilient Child by Dr Justin Coulson (ABC BOOKS) Available to purchase at https://shop.abc.net.au/products/9-ways-to-a-resilient-child-pbk