Destroying Self Esteem by Praising Kids

Po Bronson has a fascinating article in NY Magazine about the negative effects of over praise or false praise of children.

The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids

Sincerity of praise is also crucial. Just as we can sniff out the true meaning of a backhanded compliment or a disingenuous apology, children, too, scrutinize praise for hidden agendas. Only young children—under the age of 7—take praise at face value: Older children are just as suspicious of it as adults.

Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, a pioneer in the field, conducted a series of studies where children watched other students receive praise. According to Meyer’s findings, by the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well—it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism—not praise at all—that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude.

It goes on to explain that praising persistence creates better learning habits than telling someone they’re smart. Constantly telling a child that they’re smart leads to quitting behavior when they come up against challenges.

As I understand it, this is a common problem among kids classified as “Gifted & Talented.” If they don’t immediately get a concept, they just give up. Perhaps this is due to the types of praise they’ve received over their lifetime leading them to believe that they should be able to get things right away, all the time?

Teaching people how to learn is more important than telling them that they’re all knowing.

Malcolm Gladwell offers another perspective on this issue by explaining the difference between geniuses with “ah ha” moments and smart people who stubbornly work on and solve difficult problems.

2 thoughts on “Destroying Self Esteem by Praising Kids”

  1. This is a great post to see, though not new ideas. Anyone interested already knows about folks like Alfie Kohn who have for a long time spoken on the perils of praise (book: Punished by Rewards). Many also know that children have built-in lie detectors and can spot a phoney adult from 1.6 km away.

    The real work of teachers an parents (I am both) is to know the individual child and to understand what that child needs at different times. Unfortunately, in many home and school settings, there are too many imposed superficial distractions that take away from the personal connections that children, particularly adolescents, require for healthy development.

    Children almost always tell you what they need. But you have to be a good observer. That is, you have to become *their* best student. And as we all know, being a student is daily work.

  2. Po Bronson is great. I actually spoke with him a few times about a project I ended up doing at Williams about what happens when smart people fail at things. He’s a great writer/resource.

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