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Is praising children bad for them? To praise or not to praise

by on 2015/04/14

A research study that examined the effects of the type of praise parents give to children on their developing personalities has received considerable attention in the media. With headlines like “too much praise can turn your kids into narcisstic jerks, study finds” and “parents who over-praise their kids are breeding narcissists“, it is no wonder parents might begin to think about the role of praise in parenting practices! But what did the research actually show?

What did the study involve? 

The study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was conducted by a research group at the University of Amsterdam, and involved assessment of 565 Dutch children and their parents (415 mothers and 290 fathers). The families were assessed on four occasions, six months apart. The children in the study were aged 7-12 years, the age at which individual differences in narcissism first emerge. In each wave, children completed well-established questionnaires to assess narcissism (e.g., “kids like me deserve something extra”), self-esteem (e.g., “kids like me are happy with themselves as a person”), and parental warmth separately for mothers and fathers (e.g., “my father/mother lets me know he/she loves me”). Parents completed well-established questionnaires to assess parental overvaluation (e.g., “my child is more special than other children”) and parental warmth (e.g., “I let my child know I love him/her”).

What findings did the researchers report?

The researchers reported that parental overvaluation predicted narcissism over time. This finding was reported for both mothers and fathers. The design of the study enabled them to show that the reverse relationship was not observed, i.e., children’s narcissism did not predict either mothers’ or fathers’ overvaluation. These findings were shown to be specific to narcissism; the researchers found that parental overvaluation did not predict children’s self-esteem. In contrast, parental warmth (as assessed by child report) predicted children’s self-esteem.

How did the media handle reporting of this study?

Several over generalisations and misinterpretations have unfortunately crept into the reporting on this study. The media consistently suggested that the problem lay with parents ‘praising children too much’. The study did not show a link between the frequency of praise and narcissism, but rather the type of praise given and narcissism. The nature of praise linked to narcissism within this study is the type whereby the child is made to feel superior to other children – for example “my child is more special than other children”. The study findings do not say anything about the effects the amount of praise generally given by parents to children has on their development. The key emphasis of this study was nicely captured by a Daily Mail headline: “parents told to tell offspring they are the same as everyone else rather than better than them”, although the first part of this headline – “how overpraised children turn into arrogant adults” – is a little more dubious! Here at Research the Headlines, we have repeatedly emphasised the need to be cautious about headlines that have implications for health and well-being. Children’s development and parenting are clearly areas that can be placed within this context.

The broader context

In general, research findings relating to the effects of praise on children’s development have frequently been overgeneralised in the media. For example, the findings of a similar study conducted by a group of researchers at the University of Chicago, that was reported across the media in 2013, has also been interpreted inaccurately as suggesting that (generally) praising children can be negative for their development. The study, published in the academic journal Child Development, specifically showed that parental praising of effort (known as process praise) related to more positive approaches to challenges in children. The key finding therefore emphasised the importance of praising children’s efforts when engaged in tasks. The media reporting on this study contained several inaccuracies such as “parents who tell their children how clever they are may be doing them more harm than good” and “how the wrong type of praise can harm your child“.  In fact, this study did not report any negative link between praising the child as a person and their development – the statistics show that there were no significant relationships between praising the child (known as person praise) and children’s approaches to challenges. The study did not report anything negative about praising a child and their development but rather that praising their efforts is positively related to children’s motivation and approach to challenging tasks.

The bottom line

Praise in general terms has not been shown to be harmful for children. Very specific types of praise can have particular benefits or harmful effects. The research suggests that praise that overvalues the child, such as telling children they are more special than others, is not of benefit to them in the long run. Praising their efforts may also be a very beneficial practice for the development of children’s motivation and their approach to challenging tasks.

Brummelman, E.et al.(2015). Origins of narcissism in children. PNAS. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1420870112

Gunderson, E. A. et al. (2013). Parent Praise to 1- to 3-Year-Olds Predicts Children’s Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later. Child Development. DOI:10.1111/cdev.12064

 

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