Praising and telling children they’re smart can backfire! (If you’re a parent, I am confident that you know that already!) However, it’s always good to have evidence. And here it is: new research (done at Stanford and other universities) shows that praising children for apparent inherent characteristics such as intelligence or talent can undermine their self-confidence. Although such praise works well with adults, researchers found that with children it can be the complete opposite! In one study carried out in the New York City school district, it was found that children given the label ‘smart’ performed no better than other children – in fact the indications were that the label ‘smart’ actually contributed to children underperforming. By undermining their motivation ‘un-earned’ praise may actually cause laziness, anxiety, even fear, and diminish their ability to handle challenges.
What does seem to build self-confidence and a healthy self-image, according to the research, is praising children for effort, persistence or diligence, and what I like to call stick-to-it-iveness. This makes sense to me, because reward for something you do rather than for who you are is bound to create a more predictable and therefore safe reality for a child, and act as a motivator to do more of what works; you cannot be more of who you are when you, especially as a child, have no real developed sense of who you are; however you can certainly do more (or less) of actions and behaviours that gain praise! Recalling my own childhood, I can relate to that – never mind my own daughter and all the children I have known, taught, been taught by and worked with!
Now being referred to as ‘the new science of children’ this thinking has been long coming! It is all based on information we already know and which certainly has been well documented by the immense developmental research done over the last few decades. The most significant thing this ‘new’ evidence is revealing is that what works for adults does not necessarily work for children! Take gratitude for example – the very popular core of the current positive psychology and self-esteem building movement – and something I strongly espouse for my (adult) clients. Interestingly, gratitude exercises and processes that work so well in helping adults become more clear, confident, empathic, and emotionally balanced, seem to have the opposite effects on children. One study done with children in affluent Long Island communities, showed that children who focused on gratitude not only did not feel better nor more empathic than the control groups, many of them actually felt worse! The researchers don’t appear to have a satisfactory explanation, except that it may have something to do with kids feeling controlled by adults. Personally, I believe it has more to do with the brain’s developmental process, individuation, and the child’s still growing center in the brain that governs the understanding of being part of a greater whole. It is the fact that children have not yet fully developed their capacity for abstract empathy nor do they have the life experiences to create context for gratitude the way adults have, that creates a different perception of gratitude altogether.
When I work with children I ask them to make a list of things that make them happy (that is happy, not grateful). I help them create a safe place to go inside their imaginations and facilitate them to begin to use this ability to self-soothe and self-regulate, to help them make better choices for themselves. Asking a child to feel gratitude in the bigger picture is inappropriate; gratitude needs to, indeed it must always relate to any individual’s developmental stage and be authentic in the context of their unique life. As must any aspect of building self-esteem.
Expecting childrens confidence and self-esteem to respond the same way an adult’s does makes little or no sense, because they are children!
Healthy self esteem, in my experience, develops from the inside out, and is cumulative. First a child must feel loved and valued for who he or she is, just because they are. Conversely, their achievements are about what they do and the praise they receive and how they are judged needs to relate to just that, what they do, not to the lovable being that they innately are – and that we all are. Herein, I believe, lies the crux of many of our adult neuroses, that as children we were praised – or not – for who we were, and that what we did was confused with who we were. Let’s not make the same mistake with our own children; evidence based or not, we have enough information to know to build our children’s self-esteem and confidence from the inside out, developing first the inner life of the child and then – only then - the way that inner life relates to the outside world – which includes the context for gratitude as well as the feedback about their own performance. What it means to bring up emotionally balanced, coherent competent, & confident, socially aware children amid the glitz and glamour of our consumer culture, is, in essence, a balancing act, on a tightrope strung up between who the child is and what he or she does. And the greatest tool we can give them is to teach them how to negotiate that tightrope themselves, by learning to know themselves.
More about building self-esteem with children in my book Children Believe Everything You Say (Element Books 1997), available on our website and at all good bookstores, including Amazon.com