How Praise Can Hurt Kids

Graduation is the telltale sign that announces the next wave will soon be leaving for college. Parents become wistful, hoping and praying that their child's self-esteem is high enough to weather any of the life storms they'll have to face without their parents nearby.

Can't relate? That's probably because you're in the beginning of the process, the stage when you're helping your children discover just how capable they really are.

Over the last few years, several books have emerged sharing new research regarding a child's self-esteem, what works, and what doesn't work.

Prior to this new research, it was believed that copious amounts of praise would magically increase a child's self-esteem. As reader Beth W. suggests, "Praise your daughter lots, which will help her self esteem/confidence as she grows up."

However, the new research shows us that there is more to the story. It's the way a parent praises a child that is the key to whether or not a child achieves high self-esteem.

What Is Praise Burnout?

When my kids were little, I would say "good job," "well done," or "you're so smart." I said it all the time. I thought I was being such a good mom. They were good words. I meant them when I said them; I felt like I was saying I love you. Then, I began to notice that those supposed "powerful" words weren't having the impact on my kids that I thought they would. Since I said those words all the time, I felt like they were becoming hollow and meaningless. I even noticed that the words were falling on deaf ears. It was as if the kids and I had reached a saturation point. We had praise burnout!

How could praise, something so needed and so important, ever backfire? All children should be praised. The key to making praise work is in the words you use.

Depending on their age, young children are either in the literal or the magical phase of thinking. When you say, "You're so smart," they wonder, "Will my smartness be gone tomorrow? How did I get to be smart? Is it magic? Is it something I did? And if it's something I did, how do I do it again?"

Constantly praising kids, using simple statements with no details, can cause a child to feel pressured to perform or cause them to become bottomless pits seeking praise for everything they do. Some kids even begin thinking, "I'm better and more special than any other kids, including my siblings."

The Real Keys to Building Self-Esteem

The best way for your child to achieve high self-esteem is for you to switch from global praise to specific praise.

Global praise has very few details and doesn't answer a child's unconscious question, "How am I smart and will it go away?"

Using specific praise does answer the above question. It shows a child why you called him smart and how he can repeat those skills any time he needs to. Specific praise inspires hard work and persistence, the crucial skills needed for adulthood.

Here's an example:

Global praise: Child hands mom a good progress report. Parent: "Nice job! See, I told you that you were smart!"
Specific praise: Child hands mom a good progress report. Parent: "I see the extra 10 minutes you spent on reading skills each night has helped you follow directions in science, social studies, and math! It was hard, but it paid off!"

When you use specific praise, a child sees that the persistence and hard work he put in to an activity actually paid off. The specific praise leaves no doubt about how he achieved the success, shows him how he can do it again, and gives him a solid sense of his capabilities.

Switching from global to specific praise now, long before graduation, creates a child whose self-esteem is high enough to handle whatever life has in store for her as she moves to the next stage of her life.

Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding and the Skills eclass. Visit to download two free chapters from her book and learn about other Proactive Parenting programs.