Praising children with low self-esteem can be ‘harmful’

CHILDREN with low self-esteem could be harmed if they are lavished with too much praise by parents for doing things well, a research study claims.

Inflated praise can lead to their worrying they will have to reach the same standard in future tasks, the study says.

The researchers, from Southampton University, acknowledge this advice may run counter to parents' intuition - but insist being called "incredibly good" could be bad for these children. Confident children, in contrast, will strive to do better and see the praise as a challenge to repeat or better their efforts.

"Inflated praise can backfire with those kids who seem to need it the most," said Eddie Brummelman, the lead author of the study.

Dr Sander Thomaes, a lecturer in psychology at Southampton University, added that using over-the-top words such as "incredibly" hindered children with low self-esteem. "We believe that when these children hear these words they take it as an illicit message that they have to keep to high standards," he said. "This scares them: they think they won't be able to live up to it."

The research, to be published in the journal Psychological Science today, involved 144 parents, mostly mothers, administering 12 timed maths exercises to their children. They counted how many times the parents praised their children - and whether the praise was over the top or non-inflated.

Examples of over-the-top praise included "you answered very fast", "super good" and "fantastic". Non-inflated praise consisted of "you're good at this" and "well done".

The results showed parents praised their children six times on average during the session - and about 25 per cent of the comments were inflated praise, most of which was given to children with low self-esteem.

"Parents seemed to think that the children with low self-esteem needed to get extra praise to make them feel better," said Brad Bushman, from Ohio State University, a co-author of the study. "It is understandable why adults would do that, but we found in another experiment that this inflated praise can backfire."

In this study, 240 children were asked to copy Van Gogh's painting Wild Roses, receiving reaction from someone identified as a "professional painter".

They were then asked to draw other pictures, but they could choose which ones. They were told some were easy to do "but you won't learn much" while others were difficult and "you might make many mistakes but you'll definitely learn a lot too".

The children with low self-esteem who had been lavishly praised chose the easier pictures, while those with high self-esteem opted for the more difficult ones.

The findings suggested inflated praise could put too much pressure on those with low self-esteem, Mr Brummelman concluded.

But parental experts are sceptical about the findings. Margaret Morrissey, of the pressure group ParentsOutloud, said she was not convinced of the validity of dividing children into those with low and high self-esteem.

However, she said: "We tend to give children an unrealistic feedback on what they're achieving by going absolutely over the top and saying, 'That was really fantastic' when it might be more honest to say, 'You've done well there but if you did this or that it could be better.'"

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