We assume that enthusiastic words motivate children to try harder. But when you look at the evidence, it’s not that clear-cut. It all depends on the wording.

Your child presents you with their latest artistic creation. It’s a painting of a figure with very long thin legs, no body and big hair. It’s you. In the corner there’s a bit of yellow which you’re told is the Sun and beside it some patches of purple paint. If you’re being honest you’ve seen better, but as your child waits for your reaction, what do you say? “That’s amazing. It’s the best painting I’ve ever seen. It’s completely fantastic.” Your child beams as the picture is attached to the fridge door for the rest of the family to see.

But is that really the best thing to have said? We tend to assume that we all enjoy receiving praise, and that it will motivate us to try harder. But when you look at the evidence, it’s not that straightforward. It all depends on the wording.

The problem isn’t praise, but inflated praise, words like “perfect” or “incredibly good”, as opposed to a simple “good”. Parents are particularly likely to do this if their child is low in confidence, hoping it will boost their self-esteem. But this could back-fire. It’s known that if praise is thought to be insincere, it spoils its effect. There is a greater problem than a child seeing through your hyperbole, though. There’s new evidence suggesting it might make children avoid future challenges.

When children were told they had done an “incredibly beautiful drawing” those with low self-esteem were less likely to choose a challenging task afterwards than those who were told it was a “beautiful drawing”. Just one word made a difference. The question, of course, is why. The researchers speculate that inflated praise sets a standard that’s too high for them to meet, but this hypothesis hasn’t yet been tested.  

Praise be

So what is the best way of praising your child? Lead author of the latest paper, psychologist Eddie Brummelman, advises stepping back and thinking about the message you’re giving, so that you’re not setting standards so high that your child might fear failing to meet them in the future.

What qualities you choose to praise may be a factor. After two decades of research Professor Carole Dweck at Stanford University has found big differences between praising children for their abilities (telling them how intelligent they are, for example), and praising them for the effort they put in (saying “you worked really hard on that”). In one experiment, when children were either praised for their hard work or for being clever, the “clever” children played safe and chose subsequent tasks they knew how to do, and were also more distressed if they failed. Praising a child’s intelligence can teach them that this is a fixed trait that they can’t control. It can make them wary of trying anything new in case they don’t maintain their high standards.

Dweck recommends focussing on the processes a child goes through to achieve something. “I really admire how you concentrated on that,” for instance. If it has gone wrong, criticism needs to be constructive so that they learn how to remedy the problem.

This depends a lot on the age of the child, of course. With pre-school children any kind of praise seems to motivate them, but when they’re a bit older subtleties of praise is everything. Psychologist Jennifer Henderlong Corpus gave 9-11 year olds a puzzle to solve and either praised them for their character, for their results or for the way they approached the task, or alternatively gave them no praise at all. She then engineered it so that they failed the subsequent task, before watching to see what they’d do next. If they’d been praised for their character at the start of the study, they didn’t deal with failure well. It actually de-motivated them, but if they were praised for the results or the way they approached the task, they battled on.

Competing interests

What about pointing out how much better they’ve done than other children? You might think we like nothing better than to be told we’re better than everyone else, but again the research suggests it’s not that simple.

Studies with adults in the 1970s and 80s showed that this kind of praise did seem to improve the joy people get from the task itself, what is known as intrinsic motivation. But it seems with children it might be different. Children aged 9-11 were given a set of puzzles to complete. Afterwards some were told, “That’s great work! You seem to be better at this than most kids!”, or “That’s among the best work I’ve seen from someone your age!” Others were congratulated on the progress they’d made, for example, “Nice job! You’ve really learned how to solve these!” They were then given a drawing task, but this time with no feedback, so that they were unsure how well they had done before choosing between an easy or a hard task and being asked whether it’s fun to work hard.

They found that the praise involving social comparison was in fact worse than no praise at all. It seemed to sap their motivation, encouraging them to choose easy tasks in the future, maybe for fear that they would lose that top spot. But this only applied if they were uncertain about how well they’d done. When they’d already been given their scores the girls and boys and behaved differently. The boys benefitted from the social comparisons, yet the girls didn’t. They seemed to react badly to being told they were doing better than others. They seemed to take from it that what matters is beating other people, rather than getting any satisfaction from the task itself, and so their motivation was reduced.

Note that these studies were all about how praise affected the children in the short-term, rather than the long-term. Those studies would be far more difficult to conduct because you’d have to be certain that every adult was giving the children the right sort of praise for several years. But the evidence we have suggests that praising children for their effort, for and for the way they approached a task, is particularly effective in motivating them. And if you’re praising their results, then it seems it is a myth that there’s no such thing as too much praise. Over-inflated praise could backfire.

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