The next time you’re tempted to tell little Jack (or Jill) that he’s mummy’s special boy, you may want to give a thought to the message you’re communicating.
Research just published in the peer review journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that far from creating confident, well-rounded individuals who go on to become productive members of society, children who are overpraised are more likely to turn into narcissists who think they’re better than everyone else.
The study followed several hundred Dutch children, aged seven to eleven, and their parents over an 18-month period. Parents were asked about their relationship and interaction with their children, while the children were asked questions about how they viewed themselves and others. Results showed that children who were often told they were special appeared to think less of their peers but, interestingly, without a corresponding boost to their self-esteem. By contrast, those whose parents generally demonstrated emotional warmth had higher levels of self-esteem and didn’t display narcissistic traits.
Turning parenting into a full-time job
When my own mum and dad were young, their parents didn’t have anything like the interaction we do with our children. Kids were expected to get themselves to school and back, perform a range of household chores and amuse themselves during the school holidays – usually by heading into the wild blue yonder every day with a bunch of mates, a makeshift tent and a jam sandwich. It’s a wonder any of them survived to adulthood.
The tide shifted in later years and parents – for better or worse – became much more involved with their children’s learning and development. I think that parents today feel a great deal of responsibility for their children’s successes and failures; we want them to be happy, successful and talented and believe we can make it happen through sheer willpower. Proactive parenting appears to have become a full-time occupation.
Empowering children to change outcomes
We might have to realign our expectations, though, if we really want the best outcomes for our children. US psychologist and researcher, Carol Dweck, has been conducting some fascinating research into the effects of praise. Her studies show that praising children for intelligence – ‘you’re so smart’ – can have the unwanted effect of restricting their confidence when approaching unfamiliar or difficult tasks. While children praised for effort are more likely to persevere even when the going gets tough, the ‘smart’ kids see the prospect of failure as something to fear – proof that they might not be so smart after all.
By emphasising the value of effort, we are giving our children a variable they can control. Praising intelligence, however, may be as arbitrary as praising eye colour: it appears to be an absolute and doesn’t offer any strategies for responding to – and learning from – failure.
Credit where credit’s due
If we actually teach children that intelligence is something that can be developed – a quality that can be improved through effort rather than an innate gift – we can help them to pursue effective study habits and move on from failure with renewed energy.
Also, while self-esteem is important, there’s no evidence to show that it improves grades or career achievement, which is why we need to consider the ways in which we encourage our children. To be effective, praise needs to be both specific and sincere: ‘I like how you worked hard to finish that puzzle, even though it was tough’. The older they get, the cannier children become at seeing through false compliments – they may even come to regard praise, whether sincere or not, as something that’s given, often without merit, simply to encourage children who are struggling in their studies.
It’s actually plain old persistence that is perhaps most to be rewarded as it helps us to overcome the inevitable setbacks and underpins success throughout our lives.
Could the real reason we feel the need to shower our offspring with praise be that we want their small triumphs to be a reflection of our good parenting? Are we worried that taking a harder line when handing out the kudos could be mistaken for being unsupportive or, worse still, lacking belief in our children’s abilities? We all want our tots to grow into caring, thoughtful and fulfilled adults rather than self-obsessed narcissists, so maybe it’s time to ease back on the worship and aim for warm and supportive instead.
What do you think? Are we overpraising our children? Contribute to the discussion.