Can too much praise backfire?

To many people, praise seems like a wonderful tool to use with children. Praise helps them feel good about themselves and motivates them to do what pleases their parents. Yet too much praise, even when delivered with the best of intentions, can have a negative impact.

A young child has strong inner drives to accomplish things for her-self and to succeed at many tasks. She’s excited about learning, motivated to try new things, and eager to imitate adults. Parents can tell how proud their child is when she says, “Look, I got my shirt on by myself,” or, “I know how to count to ten.” Her reward for these achievements is her own sense of accomplishment.

When parents offer moderate praise for these achievements and reflect their child’s own excitement (“I can see how happy you are.”) the child knows that her parents are pleased. But when parents offer excessive praise (“Great job!” “I’m so proud of you!”), especially for everyday aspects of life such as toilet use or eating, the child may begin to expect such praise for everything she does. Eventually she may try to achieve not for internal satisfaction, but for the reward of praise, and her feelings of accomplishment may become of secondary importance. She may think, “I’ll tie my shoe because Morn will think it’s great.”

A child who is praised for every achievement may begin to distrust the praise and her own abilities. Is everything she does really that good? Or is anything she does really well at all? She may become dependent on praise and may not believe she has done something worthwhile unless she hears lavish compliments. Excessive praise can put pressure on her, too. When she’s praised so heavily for doing well, she may feel she has to continue achieving or she will lose the praise and attention. Many parents will understand these negative effects if they consider how dependent they, as adults, are on external praise and rewards.

It is fine to praise your child, and you certainly want to let her know that you feel good about her. But give praise in moderation and try to encourage her to feel good about her own abilities. Focus on her desire to do things for herself, and praise her by speaking more about her feelings than your own: “You really felt good about climbing that jungle gym, didn’t you?” By responding that way, you recognize her pride in her success. You also can praise her effectively in nonverbal ways. A hug, a smile, a look of approval all communicates your good feelings about her.

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