The Impact of Inflated Praise on Motivation

“Wow, Tommy that is the best drawing I’ve ever seen!”

“Jessie, you are the best in the class at maths, you did that sum so quickly!”

As parents and educators, you are told that giving a child praise is a great way to improve their motivation, their self-confidence and their perseverance when things get difficult.

“Be specific with your praise!”

“Praise can be even more motivating than rewarding with material things”, many experts espouse.

But recent studies have shown that praise in certain formats may actually have the opposite effect to that which we are trying to achieve.

Researchers looked at the impact of “inflated” praise on children with both low and high self-esteem and found some interesting things:

  1. Parents and teachers are more likely to give inflated praise to children with low self-esteem;
  2. Inflated praise given to children with low self-esteem was related to a decreased likelihood that they would seek out challenges; but,
  3. Inflated praise given to children with high self-esteem was related to an increased likelihood that they would seek out challenges.

The researchers suggested that inflated praise given to children with low self-esteem might send the message that they are expected to continue to meet high standards. This may cause them to avoid crucial learning experiences or situations in which they might be evaluated or feel that success is beyond their reach.

Now, there is an important distinction to be made here: this study focused on inflated praise, not on any kind of praise.

Inflated praise is the kind where we might tend to exaggerate, to say that the child has done the “best” at something, that their work is “outstandingly amazing” or that they can expect to become the world’s next expert in a given area.

Suffice it to say, it is usually not realistic praise and it is usually based more on the outcome of a child’s endeavours, rather than the effort that they put in.

It makes sense that inflated praise might make a child with low self-esteem avoid situations in which they will be judged.

If someone told me that I was fantastic at something, like singing for example, then I’m sure I wouldn’t want to let them down by entering myself into a singing competition and disappointing them (and me) with my mediocre vocal chords.

Kids have a pretty good ability to detect when someone is not being genuine so we should also remember that they may not necessarily believe the praise we are trying to give, especially if the child in question has a low sense of self-worth.

Another factor that goes along with low self-worth is that the person is more likely to attribute any success to a “fluke” or an external cause.

Let’s say the child does actually believe you when you say they did the “best drawing ever!”. If they have low self-esteem, their thought process may go something like: “Okay, they like my drawing but it was just a fluke” OR “I only did a good drawing because I copied it from somewhere.” OR “The drawing is only good because someone helped me with it”.

They are less likely to attribute any success to their own innate abilities or work ethic. Therefore, they will have little faith in their ability to succeed at that same task if they were to be evaluated again.

These are just some explanations of why inflated praise may simply not work with children who have low self-esteem.

However, many of the opposite points can be made when we look at children with high self-esteem. They may be more likely to believe praise that comes their way and are more likely to attribute any success to stable, internal factors and to believe they will continue to have success if they are faced with a challenge.

So, what should we do instead? Stop praising altogether? Only praise children with high self-esteem?

Well, to start with, let’s try to make our praise realistic and believable. It is important for all children (regardless of their level of self-esteem) to receive feedback which matches their strengths and isn’t praise for the sake of praise.

If they have weaknesses in particular areas don’t gloss over these shortcomings and make them feel fantastic about skills they don’t have. They will compare themselves to their peers and realise the truth sooner or later anyway.

But you can help them use their strengths to work on their weaknesses and encourage them to set realistic goals for themselves.

Praise has it’s place when it is also based on effort, rather than outcome. If we focus on effort when we praise a child, then there is less need to exaggerate or set unrealistic expectations.

With the right kind of praise and, more importantly, encouraging children to appreciate their own strengths, you can help them feel more confident to take on new challenges and to become resilient enough to cope with any setbacks.

If you would like any help with managing and improving your child’s behaviour, motivation or self-esteem please make a time to chat with us.


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