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Why praising your children could do more harm than good

Parents and other adults may naturally want to heap praise on kids with low self-esteem, but telling little Billy that he's incredibly great might actually do more harm than good.

In a new study to be published in the journal psychological science, researchers found that kids with low self-esteem who receive inflated praise often shrink from tackling new challenges as a result.

"Inflated praise can backfire with those kids who seem to need it the most, kids with low self-esteem," Eddie Brummelman, lead author of the study, said in a release.

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Just what counts as "inflated" praise? For Brummelman and colleagues, regular praise could be something such as, "You're good at this," while inflated praise included the addition of adverbs such as "incredibly" or adjectives such as "perfect."

As the researchers found, adults show a natural tendency to use inflated praise when dealing with kids with low self-esteem. In fact, we'll give low self-esteem kids about twice as much inflated praise than we give to kids with high self-esteem, according to one of the studies Brummelman and his colleagues conducted.

"Parents seemed to think that the children with low self-esteem needed to get extra praise to make them feel better," Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University and co-author of the study, said in the release.

"It's understandable why adults would do that, but we found in another experiment that this inflated praise can backfire in these children," he said.

In that study, 240 kids were tasked with drawing van Gogh's painting Wild Roses. They then received no praise, non-inflated praise or inflated praise in a note from someone identified as a professional painter.

Then, the children were told they could draw a picture that was easy to re-create "but you won't learn much," or more difficult images which "you might make many mistakes, but you'll definitely learn a lot too."

Kids with low self-esteem were more likely to choose the easy option.

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"If you tell a child with low self-esteem that they did incredibly well, they may think they always need to do incredibly well. They may worry about meeting those high standards and decide not to take on any new challenges," Brummelman said.

So what are parents to do? We all want to praise our kids, after all.

It might be better to focus on effort instead of results, previous research has shown.

In a study published last year in the journal Child Development, Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck found that when mothers praised the effort as opposed to talent of their kids, who were one to three years old, then five years later those children showed more motivation and more positive attitudes toward challenges.

"It's better to focus on effort and the action your baby is doing. 'You worked hard on that,' versus 'you're so good at that," Dweck said in a release.

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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