How to praise your child
by Jiranat Sripeth (Kru Dokmai), Head Teacher, and Neil Amas, School Director
We know how important a parent’s praise is to a child. But what’s the best way to give it? When your child does something well, you might tell her that she’s really clever, or smart. You might tell him that he’s a very special boy. Or you might say that she must have worked really hard.
On the surface, they all sound like similar compliments. But new research1 by Ohio State University is adding to a growing body of studies that suggest that first two increase the child’s chances of becoming what psychology professor Brad Bushman describes as a ‘narcissist’. Only the last one raises the child’s self-esteem and keeps his ego in check. The difference between ‘narcissism’ and ‘self-esteem’ in this case has to do with how you compare yourself with other people. Narcissists tend to think of themselves as better than others, while self-esteem means a person sees himself as having equal worth as others.
The research, which surveyed the way 565 sets of parents expressed appreciation of their children’s accomplishments over a period of a year and a half, found that narcissism in children is cultivated by parents who believe their child to be more special and more entitled than others, while self-esteem is cultivated by parental warmth: affection and appreciation.
Researcher and author of ‘The Narcissism Epidemic’2, Jean Twenge describes narcissists as people who overestimate their abilities, take too many risks, ‘mess up their relationships’, and who tend towards aggressive behaviour. Bushman adds that narcissists are less likely to feel empathy toward others.
“Empathy involves putting yourselves in other people’s shoes, but narcissists have a very difficult time putting themselves in other people’s shoes,” Narcissists respond poorly when they don’t get special treatment, says Bushman. “Whenever people have this sense of superiority, then they lash out at others in an aggressive way.”
Children with a good level of self-esteem, on the other hand, tend to have lower levels of anxiety and depression over time. Bushman continues, “It’s a lot better to say ‘You worked really hard’ than ‘You must be really smart’, because if you tell the kid that they’re smart and then if they fail, they think ‘Oh I’m stupid.’ ” If the praise relates to effort, a child who fails will work harder next time.
The findings are echoed in another recent article3 by Salman Khan, ‘Why I’ll never tell my son he’s smart’. Khan asserts that acknowledging effort is more likely to produce what researcher Carol Dweck describes as a ‘growth mindset’4 – a pliable mind that is open, ready to learn and expandable – while telling a child he is smart will lead to a ‘fixed mindset’ (a mind that puts limits on itself and struggles to deal with failure). Author and educationalist Alfie Kohn further argues that telling a child she is ‘good’ or ‘smart’ is more often than not an expression of parental desire to control her child and encourages either dependence or defiance.5
It is challenging to adjust the way we praise our child, especially if we ourselves have been brought up with a different approach. At Panyaden, we avoid words like ‘smart’ or ‘good’ and instead focus on acknowledging effort, such as ‘I see you’ve worked hard on your assignment,’ as opposed to ‘What a great assignment, you’re so clever.’ When we describe achievement, the child is encouraged to see for herself the results of her effort. When we judge achievement (and the child himself), we encourage the child to work for his teacher’s approval and, at worst, to build up a fixed picture of himself. Just as labelling a child as ‘stupid’ sets him up for low confidence in life, telling him he is ‘smart’ pressures him to maintain an inflated self-image, one from which any downgrading (for example by failing a test) is likely to severely knock his confidence or, worse, lead him to cheat or lie to keep up that image of being the best.
Building self-esteem and confidence can be done just by expressing more warmth, by using tone of voice and choosing words wisely. “If you want to look for a substitute for ‘You’re special’, just say ‘I love you’,” says Twenge. “It’s what you mean, and it’s a much better message.”
1Origins of narcissism in children by Eddie Brummelmana, Sander Thomaesb, Stefanie A. Nelemansd, Bram Orobio de Castrob, Geertjan Overbeeka, and Brad J. Bushmane. Edited by Susan T. Fiske, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.
2The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
3The Learning Myth: Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart by Salman Khan, Huffington Post.
4Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck, Random House.
5Criticizing (Common Criticisms of) Praise By Alfie Kohn, blog