In Maria Semple’s hilarious new novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, the title character’s daughter, Bee, attends an elite, and progressive, private school. Here, grades are doled out in three tiers: S for “Surpasses Excellence,” A for “Achieves Excellence,” and W for “Working Towards Excellence.” That is, there is no child who is not excellent in some way. It’s a parody that is, unfortunately, not far from reality.
As parents, we believe we’re meant to instill confidence in our children. That building self-esteem is the number one priority of raising, and educating, children, and that regular praising will encourage them to believe in themselves. And if kids believe in themselves, the thinking goes, they will take risks, meet goals, and generally achieve great things. Except it turns out that confidence doesn’t necessarily lead to better performance. In fact, praise might actually undermine kids’ success.
First thing’s first: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be supportive or encouraging, or help kids feel loved. But how often do we find ourselves saying “great job!” to the 4-year-old who cleans up her crayons after a coloring session? Or to the 8-year-old who finishes his broccoli? By dishing out praise to a child for doing things she should be doing anyway, we teach her that she gets rewarded just for being. Later, we tell them they’re smart and beautiful and awesome baseball players before they’ve had a chance to earn it—or know what those words really mean. They grow up placing their self-worth in that praise: If I’m not told I’m beautiful, she’ll start to think, then I must not be.
Research with children and families has indeed told us that praise has the opposite intended effect. It does not make children work harder, or do better. In fact, kids who are told they’re bright and talented are easily discouraged when something is “too difficult;” those who are not praised in such a manner are more motivated to work harder and take on greater challenges. The unpraised, in turn, show higher levels of confidence, while overpraised are more likely to lie to make their performances sound better. Praise becomes like a drug: once they get it, they need it, want it, are unable to function without it.
Let’s look at 6-year-old Matthew. A natural athlete, Matthew was widely praised at an early age for his throwing and catching abilities. Once he became old enough to play with other children, he realized, for the first time, that he was good—but perhaps not the best. What happened then? In Little League games, he’d choke up, constantly looking back to his parents for encouragement and forgetting to keep his eye on the ball. He’d get upset if his every effort wasn’t met with accolades from his coach—but such accolades wouldn’t help him perform any better. Safe in the envelope of constant praise that happened in his backyard with his dad, Matthew was a bundle of nerves out in the real world.
Here’s where we also see how praising kids sets them up for a world that’s almost never as generous. For kids who’ve spent their lives being celebrated for, say, tying their own shoes, failure can be devastating. In a recent New York magazine article, 27-year-old Lael Goodman said, “The worst thing is that I’ve always gotten self-worth from performance, especially good grades. But now that I can’t get a job, I feel worthless.” And this guy’s an adult; it’s even worse for an actual child. What’s more, by focusing too much on how we can build our kids’ self-esteem and confidence, we’re overlooking teaching them what real achievement means—and depriving them of knowing what it’s like to feel the satisfaction of setting a high goal, working hard, and achieving it. When we place more emphasis on the reward than the process of learning or doing—whether it’s an algebra problem or hitting a fly ball—kids inevitably focus more on the reward. They stop learning how to spell because it’s a benchmark for learning (and necessary); they learn it for the trophy and ice cream party that follows.
The point isn’t to criticize children. But it’s to recognize that self-esteem really, truly comes as the result of achievement—in the classroom, on the field, at home—rather than false accomplishments. Instead of praising your child with “you’re so smart!” be specific. Tell him, “You did a great job on your spelling quiz,” or simply, “You tied your own shoes!” Instead of telling him he’s he best on the team when you really don’t mean it, tell him you could tell he tried hard. Next time, he’ll try even harder—guaranteed.
Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College, Cornell University, and author of Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family (Rodale, May 2011).