When Praise Goes Awry

By the Duke University Talent Identification Program

Praise is a powerful tool that parents and teachers can use to motivate their children. Furthermore, children appear to thrive on praise. Yet both the research on the effects of praise and advice about praise can be confusing. Praise can have widely different impacts on different children; it can:

  • motivate children,
  • lead them to brag,
  • embarrass them, or
  • cause them to believe that parents or teachers have too-high expectations for them.

Two sports stories from my clinical practice illustrate how children respond to praise.

Arianna’s parents expressed concern about her poor sportsmanship while playing on her fifth-grade basketball team. Her father explained that they never missed a game and were supportive. They cheered her on enthusiastically, praised her great playing, and told her she was the best player on the team. When Arianna’s team lost the occasional game, she lost her temper and pouted, or she blamed her teammates, the coach, or the other team for cheating-all unfairly and to the consternation of her parents. Furthermore, she got headaches and complained that basketball made her feel too pressured.

Tamara, an eighth grader, suffered from anxiety and perfectionism in relation to her schoolwork and her social relationships. She was not only critical of herself but expected perfect standards from her friends. Tamara’s grades were excellent, but she experienced headaches and sadness. For perfectionists, I usually recommend activities that children are not so skilled at, so they can experience fun unrelated to perfection. Tamara chose cross-country running, an excellent activity for tension reduction, and her dad enthusiastically jogged with her on weekends. Tamara wasn’t a fast runner, but she enjoyed it. She asked her dad for suggestions on how to improve her speed. He thoughtfully responded by saying, “If I were you, I’d find the fastest runner on the team and try to get as close to her as possible; then if you keep working at it, you’ll gradually improve.” Thereafter, Tamara cheerfully described her running experience to me as “terrific,” saying she was improving all the time. She was working hard at her running but acknowledged that she was enjoying it and found it wonderfully unpressured.

You’ll want to take note of two elements in these stories that affected the girls’ responses. First, Arianna was involved in an activity (basketball) where she was assumed to have extraordinary talent, which led Arianna to feel like she had to defend her position of being the best. Although running was not a special talent area for Tamara, she felt she had little to lose. The second element involved the praise directed at the girls’ success. Arianna’s dad praised her performance excessively: he considered her a great player and the best on the team. Tamara’s dad praised her hard work and helped her set goals for improvement only.

These two sports stories apply to school performance as well. They show how the wrong kind of praise can go awry and lead gifted children to feel undo pressure, underachieve, or be defensive about their high abilities. They also illustrate how parents and teachers can effectively praise gifted children in order to motivate them to achieve academically.

Gifted Children Attract High Praise

Consider all the praise gifted children receive from grandparents, parents, teachers, and even strangers: you’re perfect, spectacular, a math whiz, brainy, the best, brilliant, genius, the smartest; and even “You’re like Albert Einstein.” These words may motivate young children to learn and make them feel smart, but they may also burden them with a persona they will feel pressured to live up to. Their defensiveness becomes evident when they are IQ tested in our clinic; they are afraid to take guesses or they change the subject when they don’t know the answer and instead chatter on about what they do know.

Parents of gifted children claim they want to avoid pressuring their children and only want them to love learning and work to their potential. However, they assume erroneously that if some praise is good, more must be better, and most must be best of all. Highly competitive and superlative praise will facilitate effort only while children believe they can achieve such lofty goals, but it will cause pressure and discouragement as other children surpass their accomplishments or grade performance. Too much praise can cause children to either become dependent on parent praise or to think that their parents are only exaggerating.

Praise conveys parents’ values and expectations to their children. High, reasonable expectations and praise that communicate messages to think well, be curious and enthusiastic, enjoy learning, work hard, and persevere will encourage those positive learning values. Praise that applauds kindness and consideration will encourage caring qualities. Once parents become aware that compliments convey expectations, they easily learn to be realistic and less pressuring.

How Parents Can Mediate Others’ Super-Praise

Although it’s difficult to stifle a grandparent’s enthusiasm for little geniuses, parents can explain that Grandmom’s exaggeration comes only because of her great love or Grandpa’s exaggerated adoration is permitted only for grandparents. In that way, grandparents won’t feel hurt, and parents can help put the extreme praise in perspective for their children—thus brilliant can be interpreted to mean pretty smart, and beautiful can be translated to mean the beauty within the child.

Praise and Underachievement

Extreme, early praise can often trap underachieving children into a defensive avoidance of challenging work, but it’s only partially responsible. Gifted children quickly come to equate smart with easy; when schoolwork finally becomes difficult, or the competition from classmates feels problematic, gifted students may fear they’re no longer gifted. As a result, they avoid their work as an excuse for not feeling smart enough. “I forgot,” “I don’t care,” “the teacher doesn’t like me,” “it isn’t cool to do work,” “I don’t like being gifted,” or “school is boring” may be defensive statements used to protect themselves from the fear that even hard work might not lead to the straight A’s they believe are expected of them. When praising gifted children, place particular emphasis on effort; for example, state “You’re really working hard now.” For underachievers in particular, a statement like “If you’d only do your work, you could get all A’s” is likely to be interpreted as pressure for A’s.

Strangely enough, as underachievers gradually emerge from their bad habits, too much enthusiasm often sends them back into their shell. One student, Joshua, reminded me that his mother expects him to get all A’s based on the belief that if he would only do his work, he would get top marks. In truth, Joshua’s mother would have been happy if he received a few B’s instead of the C’s, D’s and F’s he got because of all his missing assignments. Another student, Matt, finally got an A on his project, and his dad exclaimed in absolute excitement about how wonderful his grade was. Matt, too, shared with me that he wished his dad hadn’t made such a big deal of the A, and that now, he’ll probably be expected to get A’s in everything. Cautious optimism and casual references to gradual improvement and hard work are more effective.

The Other Extremes

Do be aware of the other extremes: either negatively labeling a child continuously or giving messages of low expectations. The negative labeling often happens for only one of the children in the family. It becomes easy for one child to be the “chosen” one, while the other collects the sad or negative words or no praise words at all. One child easily can be labeled scholar and the other as the athlete, social one, or troublemaker. Parents can have whole, smart families who are reasonably social, participate in sports, and even get into trouble occasionally, if they’re careful not to label their children and help all of them to develop their strengths.

As to providing too-low expectations, go back to the first story about Arianna, the fifth-grade basketball player. After I advised her dad not to praise her so extremely because I believed it caused her to feel great pressure, he reversed his strategy, but a bit too much. Instead, he reminded her that basketball was only a game and that he wanted her to have fun and not worry about winning. During her next game, he observed that she was clowning with her friends, not paying attention to the ball, and playing like she didn’t care about winning at all. His communication had been too extreme. My subsequent recommendations were for her father to communicate somewhere in between those extremes like, “Yes, it is just a game, but I expect you to do your best to win, because that’s what games are for.” And, if she doesn’t win, she can practice some more and do her best again. In life, she’ll win some and lose some and while winning is more fun than losing, no one wins all the time. This more moderate strategy was effective. Arianna learned to compete, collaborate, and become a good sport—and these strategies are just as effective in the classroom as they are on the basketball court. Choose your praise words to reflect your realistic but positive expectations to motivate without over pressuring and remember, praising effort and perseverance is most effective.

Sylvia B. Rimm, PhD

Sylvia B. Rimm is a child psychologist, director of the Family Achievement Clinic, and clinical professor at Case School of Medicine.

By the Author

How to Parent So Children Will Learn: Strategies for Raising Happy, Achieving Children (3rd edition), by Sylvia Rimm, Great Potential, 2008

Keys to Parenting the Gifted Child (3rd edition), by Sylvia Rimm, Great Potential, 2007

Why Bright Kids Get Poor Grades: And What You Can Do About It (3rd edition), by Sylvia Rimm, Great Potential, 2008