Recent research by Eddie Brummelman and colleagues has tried to shed light on this question. In three studies, they looked at how adults dish out praise to children in both an experimental and naturalistic setting, and how children with varying levels of self-esteem take it. Their results suggest that overly positive praise might not have the intended effect for children who have low self-esteem.

 

In the first experiment, Brummelman’s team asked a group of adults to read short descriptions of hypothetical children, described as either having high or low self-esteem. People were told about something that the child had done – say, solving a maths problem, or performing a song. After reading through the description, they were asked to write down any praise that they might give the child. Brummelman’s team found that about a quarter of the praise was overly positive (e.g. "that sounded magnificent!"), and that people were more likely to give more extremely positive praise to the children who had low self-esteem.

 

The researchers then tried to replicate these findings in a more naturalistic setting, by observing how parents interacted with their children when giving them a series of maths exercises at home. Brummelman and colleagues found a similar result to their laboratory experiment – about a quarter of the time, praise was overly inflated, and children who had lower self-esteem were given more inflated praise than those who had higher self-esteem.

Brummelman’s team found that if children with lower self-esteem were given overly-inflated praise, they were less inclined to seek a challenge in the second task – they would go for easy drawings over the harder ones, and therefore miss out on the chance for a new learning experience. On the other hand, children with high self-esteem were more likely to seek a challenge after being given inflated praise. Interestingly, the only difference between the inflated and non-inflated praise was a single word – incredible (“you made an incredibly beautiful drawing!” versus “you made a beautiful drawing!”).
What the study doesn’t tell us is why children with low-esteem might avoid challenges in these circumstances. The authors suggest that inflated praise might set the bar very high for children in the future, and so inadvertently activates a self-protection mechanism in those with low self-esteem – although they acknowledge that they didn’t actually measure this in the study.
At any rate, the finding builds on a number of experiments conducted in recent years showing that positive praise isn’t necessarily good for all children in all circumstances. For children with low self-esteem, although we might feel the need to shower them in adulation, this might end up having precisely the opposite effect. Even words like incredible can end up having a huge unintended impact – so when you’re telling children they’ve done a great job, choose your words wisely.
From BPS Research Digest