For years, parents have been encouraged to pile on the praise in an effort to nurture and buoy a child's sense of worth. But a steady diet of praise can set your child up for failure in later life. In the real world, employers, colleagues and others offer praise only for exceptional effort, not for ordinary expectations. Like a sugary snack, a little praise is a sweet thing, but too much can be harmful.
Researchers Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller of Columbia University found that when children were praised for their intellect, instead of their ability, they tended to lose motivation if they performed poorly on a test or project. These children were operating under the misguided assumption that they did well only because they were smart, rather than because they studied hard. Avoid praising your child for inherent traits for which your child has no control over, such as beauty, intelligence or athleticism. Sooner or later, these traits might fade or seemingly diminish. Instead, praise effort and hard work, and be specific in your praise. Try comments, such as, "That science test was really hard, but you kept studying until you got it right."
Parents often assume that offering praise will build a child's self-esteem, but sometimes the opposite is true. True self-esteem is an internal process, which comes from mastering difficult tasks and making meaningful contributions. A child's inner sense of pride over a job well done means more than any kudos from an external source. If you constantly praise your child, she might come to need and expect your approval, rather than learning to gauge success for herself, according to the University of Minnesota Extension office. Children who are addicted to praise become insecure and anxious if they don't receive accolades for every positive success.
When children are constantly rewarded for their efforts, they might come to view the reward as more important than the experience. Stickers, reward charts, merit badges and other common rewards replace the intrinsic value of an experience. In fact, the 2006 Brown Report on Education from the Brookings Institution found that children in countries in which educators and parents focus on self-esteem have lower academic achievement than those which focus on effort and results. Think twice before rewarding children for grades or for reading. Instead, focus on pleasurable activities and experiences. To encourage a love of reading, for example, read engaging fiction books together or use books to learn a new skill. Model a love of reading yourself.
Forget the notion that you are responsible for nurturing your child's self-esteem through constant praise and reassurance. Kids are strong, capable and determined in their own right, and rarely need adults to convince them of their worth. Instead, give your child freedom to make mistakes and try new things. Work together, since real effort is one of the most effective ways to increase self-esteem. Offer sincere, specific praise rather than making vague generalizations. Sometimes, a wink, pat on the back or quick squeeze conveys more than words.