Honest praise is just fine, writes Eleanor Barkhorn in The Atlantic. But adults often heap compliments on children with low self-esteem.
In one study, Dutch children were asked to rate their confidence. Later they were told to copy a famous painting, which would be evaluated by a “famous painter.” There were three random responses to the child’s painting: “You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!” (inflated praise); “You made a beautiful drawing!” (non-inflated praise); or no comment about the drawing at all (no praise).
The researchers . . . asked the children to make a new drawing and let them pick their subject: either a complex drawing or a simple one. It turned out that the students with low self esteem were less likely to do a complex drawing if they’d received inflated praise. “Compared to non-inflated praise, inflated praise decreased challenge seeking in children with low self-esteem,” the researchers wrote.
In another study, parents gave more inflated praise to children with low self-esteem than they did to children with high 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, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State.
“If you tell a child with low self-esteem that they did incredibly well, they may think they always need to do incredibly well. They may worry about meeting those high standards and decide not to take on any new challenges.”
Confident children can handle excess praise, researchers said.