Jan. 3, 2014 at 4:11 PM ET
Moms and dads who bathe kids in exaggerated flattery to boost low self-esteem are stifling the very children they hope to elevate, a new study shows.
In experiments involving groups of about 1,000 adults and 500 children, scientists found that kids who self-identified as lacking confidence shied from tough tasks after receiving hyped compliments from adults, according to the paper, to appear in the journal Psychological Science.
Researchers videotaped parents, tallying how often they juiced their verbal kudos if they believed their child struggled with esteem. Common “inflated” phrases included: “You answered very fast!” and “Super good!” Researchers found that parents tended to give more inflated praise if they knew their children had lower self-esteem. During those taped home conversations — which lasted five minutes — parents lauded their child six times on average, and one-quarter of those compliments were deemed “inflated,” meaning they usually included an adverb like “incredibly.”
In a subsequent test, children drew a Vincent van Gogh painting then received a note containing inflated, non-inflated or no praise from a “professional painter.” An example of non-inflated praise: “You made a beautiful drawing!” In other words, no fluffy adverb was used.
The kids, aged 8 to 12, next were asked to draw either simple or intricate pictures. Children with self-designated lower confidence chose the easier task if they got excessive praise, the study found. They were more apt to tackle the tougher drawing if they received simple, positive feedback. Kids brimming confidence, meanwhile, were game for harder tasks after hearing extra-flowery raves for their initial work.
The authors theorized that telling children with lower self-esteem they performed “incredibly well” caused those kids to believe they had to match that high standard, making them shrink from trying to repeat the achievement.
“It’s good to become aware of the messages you send to a child – even when the message is well intended, it might have unintended consequences,” said Eddie Brummelman, lead author and a visiting psychology scholar at Ohio State University during autumn 2013.
The experiments were conducted in the Netherlands – where the parenting culture is similar to that in America, researchers said.
The findings bolster what other psychologists have maintained: Modern parents put excessive weight on high esteem, yet such parenting tactics don’t always inspire children to challenge themselves.