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I have been telling parents for a very long time not to overdo praise. I based this on instinct. It seemed to me that kids who were praised all the time were subject to two potentially negative effects. 1) If your are permanently placed on a pedestal there is only one direction you can go: down! 2) If I the praise isn’t true, you have trouble trusting your parents’ judgment and good sense.

I remember my grandmother always saying, “What a beautiful girl you are!” This was repeated over and over whether I was dressed up or had just fallen in the mud, whether my adolescent skin was clear or I had a zit. The comment irritated me because I didn’t believe what my grandma said for a minute.

I tell parents to praise specifically, not globally. “You cleaned up your room without being asked, that’s being responsible!” Praise honestly. If you kid has a zit find something to praise other than appearance. Praise sparingly so it means something. If you praise continuously kids tune it out just like they tune out your nagging.

My instincts were right. Psychologist Carol Dweck quoted in New York Magazine (Bronson, How NOT to Talk to Your Kids, February 19, 2007) studied the effect of praise on fifth grade students. After completing a test in which all the students would do well, some were given the result and told, “You must be smart at this.” Others were given their result and told, “You must have worked really hard.” The researcher said only one sentence, saying you are either smart or you worked hard.

Later these same students could chose to take an easy test or a challenging one. The majority of students praised for their intelligence chose the easy test while 90% of those praised for effort opted for the harder test. Then everybody got a hard test. Those praised for effort worked hard and enjoyed it even though they failed. Those praised for intelligence thought the failure meant they weren’t smart after all so they gave up. Finally all the kids got another easy test to do. Those praised for intelligence did about 20% worse than they did on the first test, those praised for effort improved their scores by about 30%.

What’s going on here? If you are told it is your effort that counts you want to work as hard as you can because you feel you control your success. If you are told you are smart you don’t see the need of making an effort. Which kid would you like yours to be? I sure want the one who works hard and feels in control of his or her own success.

My guidelines to praise specifically, honestly, and sparingly still hold for parents. Maybe you should also ask your child’s teacher how praise is used at school.

The bottom line is that self-esteem (the most over-used phrase I know) is analogous to a bridge resting on two pillars. One is the pillar of FEELING LOVED; the other is the pillar of FEELING COMPETENT. If you don’t have both pillars your bridge of self-esteem falls down.

If praise can make you less competent by turning off effort, parents and teachers of America we have a big problem.