How Praise Can Do More Harm Than Good on Your Child’s Self-Esteem

Praise can damage a child's self-esteem

Have you ever wondered what is the best way to encourage children and help them build healthy self-esteem?  We often think that giving them praise and compliments is a good way to help them build their self-esteem.

But what if telling our kids “you’re amazing” wasn’t as helpful as we might have thought?

From my reading and research into neuroscience, the Montessori method, and conscious parenting, I have come to notice an idea that their share: giving praise isn’t actually really recommended…

In fact, recent studies in the fields of affective and social neuroscience tell us that this could even be counter-productive in boosting your child’s self-esteem!! 

Ok, so, if we don’t give compliments to our children, how can we encourage them?

In this article I will cover :

  • The difference between praise and encouragement
  • Why praise and compliments are counter-productive
  • How to encourage your child without relying on praise or rewards
  • Some examples of encouragement
  • The 4 attitudes you can take on to encourage your child

Let’s get into it!

Praise: what impact do they have on our children’s self-esteem?

What makes compliments ineffective?

“Your drawing is amazing, sweetie”
“You are so kind”
“You are so pretty”
“Wow, you got the highest grade in your whole class

Yes, you guessed it, these are all examples of compliments. Also, these are phrases that contain some value of judgements. Of course, they are positive judgements, but they put “labels” on our children and their achievements.

Parents have long been told that praising their children is good for their development.

But in reality, studies in neuroscience and child development have found this to be the opposite. Why is this?

Emotional dependence

When a child gets used to receiving constant praise, they start to concentrate on what others think of them and become dependent on the judgement and opinions of others.

Therefore, they risk growing into adults who constantly seek the approval of others before acting and falling into a pattern of emotional dependence.

Compliments make children dependent on the judgements of others, they do not lead to autonomy. They give extrinsic motivation and confidence, meaning that confidence and motivation do not come from the person, but from what others expect or think. – Dr. Catherine Gueguen, Heureux d’apprendre à l’école (Happy to learn in school).

Fear of not living up to expectations

Another negative consequence of constant praise is that a child may feel pressure, or even anxiety to live up to expectations.

‘If I get a bad grade at school, it will make them love me less’

If they don’t live up to expectations, anxiety may lead them to lie, blame someone else, or even hide things from you.

Fear of not being loved or losing love

This one might seem a bit exaggerated, yet much research has shown it to be true. Children are very sensitive and they are not only hearing their caregiver’s words but reading all the emotional cues. So when they see that their parents are “happier” when they get good grades or make a superb drawing, they start to fear losing their parent’s love and approval.

The dependency on the praise and the anxiety and fear around “performance” will most likely be carried into professional and personal relationships that the child will build in the future.

The difference between praise / compliment and encouragement

It may seem that there is just a fine line between compliments and encouragement, but the difference is actually very significant!

Praise / Compliment :

When we use compliments, we “express a positive judgement“: we label our child and their actions. They then fall into the habit of living their lives through the eyes of others, who decide for them if they are kind, intelligent or if they have done something right etc.

A child motivated by compliments tries, above everything else, to please others. To live up to expectations, their actions need systematic approval. Later, in adulthood, this obsession can risk discouraging them from taking initiative.

Encouragement :

Encouraging a child is “filling them with courage”, it consists of recognizing their progress, efforts and struggles. Encouragement does not put labels on children or on the result of their efforts. But, we show our interest in what our child has done and invite them to express their own feelings.

Encouragement cultivates the long-term development of self-confidence and internal motivation: this can prevent our children from becoming overly dependent on other people’s opinions.

The most valuable lessons happen when children apply themselves deeply to what they do, and not when they worry about the judgement of others. – Faber and Mazlish

How to help develop self-esteem in children without praise?

So, we have seen how compliments are counter-productive and can hurt our children’s self-esteem in the long run.

So how can we encourage children and help them build self-confidence?

Actually, it’s pretty simple: to encourage our kids, all we need to do is give them our time and show interest in what they do.

We can describe, outline and emphasize their actions, the effort that they put in, their feelings, and their interests without our words carrying judgment.

Is it still not clear whether what you say to your child is encouragement or a compliment?

In Jane Nelsen’s book, Positive Discipline, she outlines four questions to ask yourself to help you understand the difference:

  1. Is what I say help encourage my child to self-assess, or to be dependent on the judgment of others?
  2. Am I being respectful or condescending?
  3. Am I considering my child’s perspective or just my own?
  4. Would I say the same thing to a friend?

Here are some examples of what we can say to our children, following these guidelines.

Examples of encouragement

1. “Oh, I see you drew a picture. Hmmm, I see there is a boy and a dog. Does it tell a story? I can see that you used both orange and blue here…

We show our interest in the detail they have put into their drawing, we describe what they have done, and we can ask curiosity questions.
(Instead of “I love your drawing, it’s so great” “I love the colors you chose”)

2. “Can you tell me how you built that? How did you come up with the whole idea?

Here, we initiate a conversation about their creation and encourage them to share their knowledge while positively highlighting their learning process.
(Instead of: “Wow you are so creative” or “This is so amazing”)

3. “I know you have been working hard for this, your effort has really paid off! How do you feel about what you’ve just done? What do you think you have learned?

When the child has accomplished something and shows that he is happy about it. We can highlight the effort and progress they have made and invite them to express themselves and give their own opinion.
(Instead of: “You are so smart” “I am so proud of you!”)

4. “Thank you for your help, it helped me finish dinner more quickly!” “I appreciate your help!

Here, we express gratitude for what they have done. But, saying “you are so sweet to have helped us” doesn’t have the same effect since it carries a judgement on the child.
(Instead of: “You are so kind. You are such a good helper”)

5. “What do you think about that?” “How do you feel about this?

We help our children to self-assess and to feel valued, without seeking praise from others.
(Instead of: “You must be so proud of this!” “You must be so happy about this”)

5 things that you can do to encourage your child

1. Connection: being present, attentive, and acknowledging

Presence

Encouragement can be something as simple as giving your children a hug. Your presence, readiness to listen and to spend time with them are all essential elements to comfort them, help them cultivate motivation to do better and grow their own wings to fly!

Connecting and acknowledging

To connect fully with your child, it’s essential to put yourself in their shoes and understand their feelings and needs. It is ok if you have a different view or if their feelings don’t exactly align with your own feelings. What is important for connecting with our children is to acknowledge their thoughts and emotions and to know how to accept them as they are.

Which brings us to the next point.

2. Be curious, Don’t fix, Listen, and Reflect back

So what do I mean by accepting the children as they are?

Here is an example :

If your child is frustrated because he/she lost a game and thinks he/she didn’t perform well.
In these cases, we might be tempted to say: “Cheer up, it’s only a game, you play so well!” to cheer them up, or “Be a big boy, don’t cry!” to try to make the sadness go away.

But this doesn’t help children much because, in their minds, they are frustrated, and our comment doesn’t change anything. Quite the opposite, they can actually feel unheard or misunderstood.

Instead, we can encourage them to talk about their experience without trying to fix how they feel about it.

“I see that you are upset about the game. What are you feeling? Do you want to talk about it?”

There’s not much point in just assuming what the child is feeling and saying “Oh, sweetie, you must be sad” We can wait until the child names his/her own emotions. We can listen without judgement, hold space without trying to change or fix how he/she is feeling, take interest in the obstacles and offer to support in finding a solution.

For example, we can ask:

“What are you feeling right now?” (Reflect back “I hear you are feeling sad and angry at the same time”)
“What do you think was your strength during this game? In which areas did you feel you can make progress?”

This approach means that we don’t focus solely on what children did “wrong” (didn’t do right), but encourage them to build on their strengths and be creative about how they can make progress. This encourages kids to think for themselves about what they can do to make progress, which in turn helps them to develop their problem-solving skills and boost their self-confidence.

3. Effective support – don’t focus on success but on the learning process

In order to encourage children and help them build self-confidence, it is better to concentrate our attention on their learning process and effort, rather than focusing on their “intelligence”, “success” or the final outcome.

For example, you can outline what you have observed and ask them questions about how they feel:

“I saw that you have been working really hard for a while” (observation)
“How do you feel now that you have finished this piece of work?” “Did you enjoy learning about that?” “Which part was the most difficult for you to grasp?”

When a child is faced with a challenging situation, we should not use phrases like:

“I believe in you, you are the best and you can do it.”

When we use this type of phrase, we are still focusing on their success and indirectly telling them that we want them to be the best and succeed. Instead of embracing their deception or difficult emotions, children learn that they should just be brave, and strong, and succeed at any cost. This can put too much pressure on them and they can fear failure, which will paralyze their future efforts.

We should keep in mind that the learning process is the most important thing. So it’s more meaningful to ask them questions that could help them overcome obstacles or problems. In this way, this can help them reach their objectives. Here are some examples of what you can say:

“Let’s think about it together, how can you do…”, ” What was that task all about?” “What is the next step in order to?”

When a child makes a mistake, it’s important to let them know that it’s normal if they don’t know how to do everything straight away. Making mistakes is a natural step in the learning process.

In these moments of difficulty, if they see that you are present and that you accept them without judgement, they realize that they can always come to you and count on your support. THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING! That gives children the tools they need to try again, and eventually spread their wings and fly!

4. Don’t compare to others

Whether it is to their siblings, or to their school friends, it is not recommended to judge children in comparison to others. This may not seem like such a big deal but for their self-confidence. However, always being compared to others is really devastating for a child who is building his or her own sense of self.

“Wow, your brother got a good grade at school! You should try to do like him.”

Far from offering encouragement or motivation to do better, this type of phrase creates a negative self-image. How do you think they feel when they see that their brother achieved something and they didn’t?

They could end up thinking that they are not loved and that their brother (sister, friend) is smarter, that others can do things better than them.

As I wrote earlier, this is also true even if the child is praised. “Wow, you are the smartest. I am so proud of you.” They could have the feeling that their parents will only love them if they achieve certain things, and start to fear losing their love and attention.

Comparison evokes a feeling of fear, inferiority, and jealousy and does not encourage children.

5. Avoid rewards and punishments

Rewards or punishments might seem like a good tactic to offer children to encourage them to do better. However, many studies have shown quite the opposite.

Rewards

If good behaviour and hard work are systematically rewarded with treats or gifts, a special outing, ice cream or allowance, a child won’t rely on internal motivation to do things for themselves. This doesn’t encourage children to develop a real aptitude and to accomplish things for their own sake.

Punishments

Following the same logic, punishing a child doesn’t encourage them to work harder or to behave better. For example, taking away something they are looking forward to doing over the weekend to make them work harder during the week is totally counter-productive… Far from “teaching them a lesson”, the punishment could make them so angry and resentful that they won’t be able to concentrate on their work.

Again, the best way to encourage children is to show a keen interest in what they are doing and to support them with empathy when they are having difficulties.

It is important not to focus on the idea of success or failure.

“A child needs encouragement like a plant needs water” – Rudolf Dreikurs

The takeaway message: the benefits of encouragement

As we have seen throughout this article, compliments can make a child dependent. Long term, they could become incapable of acting without the approval of someone else, which could become a real obstacle in their adult life.

I can testify to this, as I received a lot of compliments as a child. But once I became a teenager and a young adult, I really lacked self-confidence and I was always seeking the approval of others! I often had anxiety about not doing something well enough. I had to work really hard on myself to undo this pattern!

More than anything, motivating your child involves being present for all the steps of the learning process: their progress, efforts and challenges, and acknowledging their joy, frustrations and disappointments.

It also involves providing guidance and support so that they can understand and fully express their own feelings without trying to fix how them.

When children receive repeated encouragement, they:

  • Do things for their own sake
  • Are motivated to make progress
  • Experience internal satisfaction
  • Learn to think for themselves
  • Develop self-esteem and self-confidence
  • Are able to concentrate on their own activities without comparing themselves to others
  • Can flourish into a well-rounded person

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Hi there!
Fumie Toki QEC Advanced trauma practitonor

I am Fumie. I am the founder and writer behind Zen Tofu. I am an Embodied Healing Practitioner, Conscious parenting and Life coach, and therapist. I share my experience and support others to heal and live an empowered, happy, healthy, and connected life. 

Read more about me

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