Self-esteem research shows that telling kids they’re clever all the time can turn them into anti-social “praise junkies”.
Your six-year-old boy brings home a drawing of a house he’s done at school. Your immediate reaction is to call it “fantastic” and praise his effort — even though his colouring-in goes over the lines and the structure as he’s drawn it would collapse in a jiff.
But building self-esteem in our children is the most important thing you can do for them, right? Wrong. Research over 10 years by Dr Carol Dweck of Columbia University in the US shows that instilling self-esteem at all costs creates children who are precious “praise junkies”, constantly seeking affirmation and unable to cope with life’s ups and downs.
According to Dweck, the phrase “you’re so clever” is one of the most damaging to a child’s development. Over-praising gives the child unrealistic expectations to live up to. Telling them they’re “clever”, Dweck’s research shows, creates an image they feel they have to protect in order to please us. This in turn makes them anxious not to fail, and the result is they become more conservative and attempt easier tasks they know they won’t screw up.
Better results are recorded when kids are told: “You must have worked really hard here” or “You put in a lot of effort”. Dweck says this is because this kind of praise relates to something kids can control — the amount of work they do, which inspires them to toil even harder.
Constructive criticism is also important, Dweck says. If a child fails at school or scores an own goal in a soccer match, saying “it doesn’t matter” creates a kind of fantasy world where succeeding and failing are the same thing in the child’s eyes. The best approach is to give him the tools to cope with his disappointment so that he does better next time.
The fallout from over-praising can lead to anti-social behaviour too. The authors of Nurtureshock, a US book based on scientific studies of young children, says that over-praised kids become poor team players because their main objective is maintaining their own image, so they undermine other kids to make themselves look good.
However, the authors stress that positive feedback can be of value, but it must be earned and it must be genuine.