Here’s why we should praise our children for the efforts they make, not for accidents of nature like physical qualities or innate talents.
There was a time not too long ago when many folks (mental health professionals among them) believed there was no such thing as too much self-esteem. In fact, the dominant thinking for quite some time was that even when folks appear to think far too much of themselves, they’re probably “compensating” for underlying feelings of insecurity and low self-worth. And because so many self-help authors were linking a whole host of problems to impoverished or damaged self-esteem, doing all we could to foster self-esteem became a sort of sociocultural agenda. On top of that, many promoted the notion that we must praise our children strongly and often if they’re ever to build a robust and healthy sense of self.
In recent years, however, there’s been a turning of the tide of sorts in the prevailing opinions about self-esteem and how a healthy sense of identity is developed, thanks to some interesting new research on the subject. According to researchers in the Netherlands, it turns out you can actually praise little Johnny or Debbie far too much. Going overboard with the praise can have the unintended result of inflating a child’s ego, perhaps even fostering narcissism in their character development. Moreover, some other recent findings by the same principal researchers suggest that praising kids for the wrong things (e.g., their personal attributes) can also have some significantly negative consequences.
While I was doing clinical case study research for my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, I uncovered what I believed was evidence that the budding narcissists with whom I had been working often received — and readily conferred upon themselves — mounds of praise for their innate talents, abilities, physical qualities, etc. from parents, friends, and others. And because these things are incontrovertibly accidents of nature, that meant that the kids were giving themselves credit for things that they couldn’t legitimately take full credit for. As a result of these observations, I also came to believe that when kids come to prize themselves too much for their personal attributes as opposed to how they’ve used the resources they’ve been given for the greater good, while their self-esteem may indeed be high (perhaps even unhealthily high) they don’t necessarily develop legitimate self-respect. (See the articles “Getting It Right About Self-Esteem” and “Self-Image: How We See Ourselves and Why It Matters”.) During the time I was developing my perspective, there was no formal research supporting it, but recent research on self-esteem development in children appears to support these notions fairly well. In fact, according to Eddie Brummelman and colleagues, praising children for their personal qualities (e.g., intelligence, looks, athletic talent, etc.) as opposed to their efforts is not only unhealthy, it’s quite risky. Why? Because kids who pride themselves too much on their abilities can all too easily get down on themselves when they fail in some way to achieve at a level they’ve come to expect.
Many years have passed since I first gathered the case study data on self-esteem development for my books. Over the subsequent years, I witnessed hundreds of examples of how young persons can develop a self-image that is unhealthily out of balance. So, in Character Disturbance I offered what I considered to be one of the more important of what I called the “Ten Commandments” of sound character development:
Remember, you are not synonymous with your talents, abilities, or physical attributes. They are all endowments (i.e. fortunate accidents of nature, “gifts” of God or the universe) entrusted to you. Recognize where things really come from and give credit and recognition where credit and recognition are truly due. Who you are and how you are defined in character are in large measure determined not so much by what you have or have going for you but by what you do with what you’ve been given. The credit for your life and innate capabilities belongs to nature or, ultimately, the creative force behind nature. But the credit for what you do with all you’ve been given goes exclusively to you. This is the essence of merit.
We live in an age where the concept of merit doesn’t enjoy the status it once did and has always rightfully deserved. It truly amazes me how many individuals I’ve encountered over the years who prided themselves for all the wrong things yet failed to recognize the supreme value of any of their more meritorious actions. In almost every case, this led to an unhealthy sense of self. So, one of the most essential components of the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) model I employ is a technique designed to help folks recognize and give themselves credit for the often difficult choices they make and the steps they willingly take to be a better person. Therapists know that to be effective agents of change we do well to be both affirming and rewarding. (See “Becoming a Better Person: Covert Self-Monitoring and Self-Reinforcement” and “The “Directive” Therapist”.) But I’ve learned to be very selective about how, when, and what I praise. It’s equally important to advise folks properly about how, when, and why they should applaud themselves. What I’ve learned over the years and what some of the more recent research is now bearing out is clear: it’s not what you look like, how witty you are, or any of those other unique attributes you possess that makes you “special.” If you allow yourself to think so, you’re likely to get a pretty fat head. What really makes makes you extraordinary is what you do with your gifts. It’s also what defines your character. Recognizing and accepting that should keep us all healthily humble.
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