The dangers of excessive praise

Yesterday, Professor Helen McGrath from RMIT was quoted as saying that lavishing children with praise can create a very high self-esteem which in turn can lead to bullying behaviour. Professor McGrath’s comments make sense. A child who is constantly told that they are fabulous, that they are better that anyone else and that they can do absolutely anything they put their mind to will have an inflated view of themselves. Such excessive praise can create narcissistic traits and narcissists are often bullies who totally lack empathy.

A recent study also highlighted another danger of excessive praise. Researchers in the US showed that children who were allowed to work through a maths problem without any praise until the solution was found, were more proficient at problem solving than their peers who were encouraged and praised throughout the process.

But many parents are confused. Aren’t we supposed to be helping our children to feel good about themselves? Are we meant to be praising them and telling them that they’re fabulous? What is excessive praise? The simplest way to think of praise is that it is a method of positive reinforcement and so we should use praise to positively reinforce the behaviours we want to see. To that end let’s:

  • Praise them for working things out for themselves
  • Praise them for showing compassion towards another person
  • Praise them for being empathic
  • Praise them for effort
  • Praise them for achievement that came from that effort
  • Praise them for coming through a tough time

But of course, we must always let them know that they are loved, whether or not their behaviour was worthy of praise.


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