By Alandra Johnson • The Bulletin

A parent’s take on praise

Like every other parent I know, I have the best kid in the world . My 3-year-old daughter is beautiful, clever, kind, hilarious and utterly charming. I want to shout her praises to all I see. Not shouting about her amazingness is challenging.

And though every time I see her, I want to tell her I think she’s the best kid ever, I try to restrain myself.

I have read too much about the harmful aspects of praise. I know it’s not good for kids to get a steady diet of “you’re the best!”

Praise is a tricky issue for me, and one I want to get right.

I first wrote about the problems with praise in 2010 — a year before I had a child of my own. I talked with researchers about how constantly telling your child “good job” was ineffective and potentially damaging.

But when I wrote those things, I had no idea how hard putting them into practice would actually be.

While praise is complicated and fraught with issues, no praise is far worse. Children who grow up in homes without encouragement, expressions of love or positivity tend to fare poorly.

For me, offering loving comments and praise is part of being a good parent. But I also want to be thoughtful, because I know what I say may have unintended consequences. I’ve learned I can’t just go with my gut. Invariably, what my gut wants me to say, research tells me is wrong. Praising my daughter is a tightrope act for me. I am never certain of my footing.

When my toddler stacks a tower of blocks and looks to me with a smile, my instinct is to smile and say “good job.”

“Good job” is on my lips all the time. My daughter put her pajamas on by herself; she listened when I asked her to come; she brought her dish to the sink; she put on her shoes. These aren’t amazing tasks. These are everyday, routine things that I want to encourage and support. “Good job” feels appropriate and, even though I know it’s not the best or right thing to say, I find myself saying it. A lot.

Then there’s the process versus person praise. Researchers found kids respond much better when parents praise the process — you worked hard; you tried — versus the person or end result — you are so smart; that picture is so beautiful.

I find this difficult to do. Praising the process feels like lesser praise to me. I would rather hear someone tell me I’m smart than that I tried hard. It’s like a ribbon for participation versus a gold medal. I understand the logic behind this idea and I’ve seen enough studies backing it up to believe the veracity of the concept. But it still just feels nicer to say “You are so smart” than it does to say “You really worked hard.”

Now there’s another piece of research that goes against my parental instincts.

When a child is experiencing low self-esteem, this research shows, heaping them with praise actually backfires. When I see a kid who is struggling and doubting himself, my natural instinct is to offer superfluous support and encouragement. Bad move, apparently.

Reading the research about praise can be particularly frustrating. All those good intentions I have as a mom, which come spilling out in the form of positive words and praise, aren’t helping. What comes naturally to me probably isn’t what’s best for my kid.

I want to parse my praise, measure it and evaluate it before I say it. But that takes the fun out of what should be a delightful activity — saying nice things to my kid.

Some people, undoubtedly, won’t pay attention to this research and will go ahead and do their own thing. And that’s great.

But for me, now that I know that saying “good job” or “you’re so smart” can do more harm than good, I want to at least try and avoid those statements. Or curb them. I’m doing my best, but it’s hard.

I am ready for a pat on the back of my own and someone to tell me “good job.”

— Alandra Johnson, The Bulletin

One word may be the difference between helping and hurting children with low self-esteem. That’s one takeaway from new research about parental praise, a growing area of study that is producing results that may feel counter-intuitive to parents.

The newest study, published by the Association for Psychological Science , examined how children react to so-called inflated praise (“you did incredibly well” versus “you did well”). The study found parents tend to give children with low self-esteem lots of inflated praise. But when children with low self-esteem received that extra praise, they recoiled from future challenges.

This is just one in a line of recent studies examining the role of parental praise and poking holes in the idea that praise is always good for kids.

Eddie Brummelman, the lead researcher on this latest study working at the Department of Psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, said the most important implication of the research is that “parents’ intuition about what’s good for a child is not always right.” And, although it may feel natural to praise children, it can have “unintended consequences.”

Recent study

Brummelman became interested in studying praise as a way of understanding “how parents and teachers can shape children’s views of themselves.” The research shows that how praise is phrased can alter its affect on children.

His first foray into praise research involved examining the difference between praise focused on the process and praise focused on the person (“you worked hard” versus “you are smart”). He found parents tended to give children with low self-esteem lots of person praise. The parents wanted children to feel good about themselves, but this praise did not have that effect. “Quite ironically, person praise makes kids feel ashamed of themselves if they make mistakes,” said Brummelman. If a child does well on a test and is told she is smart, then fares poorly on another task, she feels she isn’t smart. “(Person praise) seems to create a downward spiral,” said Brummelman.

“It actually might hurt these kids.”

In the next study, Brummelman and his colleagues wanted to study inflated praise, a term they coined. “Parents believed inflated praise to be especially beneficial,” said Brummelman.

In the first phase of the study, children and their self-esteem were described to adults, who were then asked what they would say to the children. Adults were much more likely to offer inflated praise to the children with lower self-esteem (33 percent versus 18 percent for children with high self-esteem). In another phase, the researchers worked with children ages 8-12 and asked them to replicate a famous painting, which would be judged by an “art expert.” The children, who had been evaluated for their self-esteem, were then given feedback about their drawing — some received inflated praise, some did not. The children were then asked to draw something new — to attempt to recreate one of several pieces, some of which were challenging, some of which were simple. Instructors told the children that if they attempted the difficult images, they may make mistakes but would likely learn a lot, while they would not likely make many mistakes with the simple drawings but would not learn much.

Here’s where it gets interesting: Children with low self-esteem who were given inflated praise shied away from the challenging tasks, whereas if they received just the regular praise (“you did well”), they were likely to try more difficult drawings. That one word (“incredibly”) made a big impact.

“Inflated praise sets a very high standard for them,” said Brummelman. The study explains it like this: “People with low self-esteem are relatively concerned with failure and avoid situations that may reveal their worthlessness and low ability. They may cherish inflated praise but avoid challenges because they are afraid that they will be unable to meet the high standards set for them.”

As for children with high self-esteem? They lapped up the inflated praise and it actually seemed to encourage them to take on the more challenging tasks.

Brummelman understands people may be surprised to learn that one single word can make such a difference. It’s a subtle but important difference that he hopes parents and educators will embrace.

In support of praise

Praise and, in particular, too much praise is something that is coming under fire right now. “Kids are just getting praised all the time; always being told ‘good job, good job.’ … the criticism of praise is in reaction to that,” said Kenneth Barish, author of “Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems” and professor of psychology at Cornell University. In his clinical practice, however, Barish is more likely to see the opposite — parents who are angry and critical. In some ways he feels the reaction against praise can be overzealous.

“I think we should be generous with our praise. I think we all need praise. We all have moments of discouragement and self-doubt,” he said. It helps to know we have people who are proud of us and who support us, he says. Barish also believes praise is natural “it takes a lot of work” not to praise children.

That said, after reading the research on praise, he has changed some of his practices. He used to be in the habit of praising children for their intelligence. “Kids like to be told they are smart. We believe intuitively that believing you are smart encourages you to work harder,” said Barish. But now he tries to focus praise on effort.

His general rules for praise are: “If it’s genuine and enthusiastic, it’s fine. If it’s rote, then it’s not good.”

Offering insincere, empty or rote praise can undermine the message.

Brummelman feels the most important takeaway from his research is for parents “not to stop praising, but to think about how to phrase your praise.”

Praise the behavior, not the person, and praise in a non-inflated manner.

He recognizes this advice can feel counter-intuitive for parents. As adults, Brummelman says, we often feel the “amount of effort we put into something is inversely related to how much talent we have.” So working hard seems like a sign of not being smart or talented. Brummelman said if he asked a colleague to read something he wrote and the coworker’s response was “you must have worked hard on that,” he would feel he must not have done a good job.

Adults tend to feel process praise is “less nice than person praise.” But with children, Brummelman says, that’s not the case. Person praise feels nice to give and to receive, but he hopes parents keep in mind that in the long run it could lead to children encountering setbacks and feeling ashamed.

“Praising a child once is not going to affect a child dramatically,” said Brummelman. But praising “over and over again in a wrong way might eventually backfire.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7860,