“Great job on the A+!”
When your child earns an A+ on an assignment, it can be hard to stop yourself from exclaiming, “You’re so incredibly smart!” But using strong adverbs and adjectives like “incredibly” or “amazing” can actually have a negative effect on kids, says Dr Nicholas Westers, a clinical child psychologist. For children with low self-esteem, he explains, “inflated praise may inadvertently pressure them to perform exceptionally well at all times,” and they may start avoiding more challenging tasks in order to preserve their sense of self.
“You really gave it your all!”
However, the solution isn’t as simple as dropping the adjectives and adverbs. According to Dr Westers, person-oriented praise, i.e. “You’re so smart!” or “You’re the best!” addresses what kids with low self-esteem perceive as unchangeable traits, such as intelligence or athleticism. “As a result, they may come to believe, ‘If I can do it, I’m smart. Therefore, if I can’t do it, I’m not smart,’” he says. Process-oriented praise, (such as, “I can see how hard you’re trying”) on the other hand, “leads children to later seek challenging tasks because they believe they can meet these realistic expectations.”
“You won the championship! Only one out of 12 teams gets to say that!”
Regardless of their self-esteem, no child should be given more praise than is warranted. “Inflated praise is easily seen for what it is – an exaggeration. It can eventually make our kids either mistrust us or discount what we say as parents,” says Dr Erin Clabough, author of Second Nature: How Parents Can Use Neuroscience to Help Kids Develop Empathy, Creativity, and Self-Control. When a child with low self-esteem does something well, give accurate praise but give them a boost by commenting on how the external world might see it: “You won the soccer championship game! Only one team out of 12 gets to say that!”