No single pitfall outweighs all others, but the question of whether it’s possible to over-praise a child has been much debated in parenting circles over recent years in response to what we now know about Growth Mindset and Fixed Mindset theory.
Up until a few years ago it was perfectly acceptable for parents to try and build confidence and self-esteem through praise. Saying things like ‘Oh you’re so smart, you’re so clever etc.’ But actually the latest research shows that too much praise can create children who are dependent on praise. Any type of reward or praise stifles the intrinsic motivator of children. Every human being is born with the intrinsic motivation to do things well. So what’s actually happening when we praise our children is that we’re taking over this intrinsic motivation - usually because we want them to do something faster or better.
"So what’s actually happening when we praise our children is that we’re taking over this intrinsic motivation - usually because we want them to do something faster or better."
We have our own agenda so we heap rewards or praise as a means to an end. But evidence suggests that extrinsic motivation supersedes intrinsic motivation. A group of three-year-olds were given pens and paper and encouraged to draw. Half of them were offered a reward and the other half were not. Two weeks later the group were given paper and pens again but this time none of them were offered a reward. The ones who were not offered anything each time ended up drawing for 20 percent longer and better than the group who were offered a reward the first time around. The ones who were offered a reward were actually waiting for their reward as motivation. They were thinking ‘Well why am I doing this if I don’t get a reward?' So any kind of reward and praise ends up creating this extrinsic motivation that actually removes our willingness to do things for ourselves and for our own satisfaction. It’s scary!
"offer praise such as 'Great effort.' Or 'That was good practice. You couldn’t do that last week and now you can do it on your own."
So once again, it’s all about striking the right balance. If you do want to grow a child’s confidence you have to focus on things that are controllable. A phrase like 'Oh you’re so good at maths' can actually be detrimental because one day the child will inevitably get a maths problem they can’t solve and lose their confidence. So instead, offer praise such as 'Great effort.' Or 'That was good practice. You couldn’t do that last week and now you can do it on your own.' This way you are praising without removing the intrinsic motivator. As parents you stop evaluating them and allow them to self-evaluate in order to build self-esteem.