Praise kids for what they do – not who they are – to build self-esteem

'Person praise' can make a child feel shame when she does something wrong. (pic: istockphoto.com/Discovod

‘Person praise’ can make a child feel shame when she does something wrong. (pic: istockphoto.com/Discovod

You might think that praising a child with low self-esteem for his or her personal qualities might build their confidence and self-worth. But a study shows that giving this type of praise can backfire, and children can feel shame when they don’t succeed at something.

It’s better to praise the behaviour rather than the person. That’s the conclusion drawn by researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Instead of saying ‘you’re great’, tell a child ‘you did a good job’. Being specific about what exactly they did well also helps to build self-esteem. And when they do fail at something, it feels like a temporary setback rather than an utter failure for which they are to blame. The study distinguishes between ‘person praise’ and ‘process praise’. Person praise puts the focus on the self, and therefore the child will blame himself if something goes wrong.

“Adults may feel that praising children for their inherent qualities helps combat low self-esteem, but it might convey to children that they are valued as a person only when they succeed,” says Eddie Brummelman, lead researcher at Utrecht University. “When children subsequently fail, they may infer they are unworthy.”

Shame is an incredibly difficult emotion to come to terms with as an adult coming to therapy. This study gives an interesting insight into the seeds of some of that shame in adulthood. And may spur parents to give a different sort of praise in future.

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