The effects of praise: 7 evidence-based tips for using praise wisely

What are the effects of praise? It depends. Praise can boost good feelings and increase motivation. It can inspire children to be more cooperative, persistent, and hard-working. But some kids bristle in response to praise, and even those who like praise can experience negative effects. Here’s how to make sure that praise helps — and doesn’t harm — our kids.

young boy smiling and talking with father, sitting on the grass

In traditional cultures around the world, parents used to avoid praise. They worried that too much praise would inflate the ego. Make children overconfident. Too full of themselves.

But today, things are different. Many people believe that praise is an effective way to reinforce good behavior. 

What does the science say? 

There’s no question about it. Brain studies indicate that we respond to social approval in much the same way that we respond to monetary rewards (Bhangi and Delgado 2015). Praise feels good. And certain types of praise can lead to helpful outcomes.

For example, experiments suggest that kids can benefit from vague, cheerful messages.

An enthusiastic exclamation (“wow!”) or a supportive gesture (like a high five) can engender good feelings. It may also motivate children to try again after a failure (Morris and Zentall 2014).

Similarly, there’s evidence that process praise can be motivating.

“Process praise” is praise that recognizes a child’s choices or hard work, e.g.,

  • “Well done!”
  • “I like the way you tried to sound that word out, instead of just giving up.”
  • “I can tell you’ve been practicing!”

Done right, this sort of praise can inspire kids to keep working at challenging tasks (e.g., Kelley et al 2000; Henderlong and Lepper 2002; Gunderson et al 2013; Gunderson et al 2018a; Gunderson et al 2018b).

Process praise can also foster the most essential attitude for success — the belief that we can improve ourselves through effort. As I note elsewhere, experiments show we learn better when we embrace this belief.

There are also hints that praise for prosocial behavior can help young children develop good “people skills.”

For instance, consider what happens when you encourage and praise a baby for being helpful.

  • “Look! Maria dropped something. She can’t reach it. Do you want to help her?”
  • “Thank you! You’re such a good helper!”

In an experiment on 13- to 18-month-old babies, infants who received this kind of feedback went on to help more frequently. Given the opportunity, they helped twice as often as children who received no such guidance (Dahl et al 2017).

There is also evidence that older children — preschoolers — develop better social skills when we praise them for displaying good manners (Garner 2006; Hastings et al 2007).

But it’s not all good. Praise can also have negative effects.

Studies suggest that some types of praise can actually undermine your child’s motivation (e.g., Mizokawa 2018; Xing et al 2018).

Depending on the circumstances, praise may also damage a child’s self esteem, or fuel the development of narcissism (Brummelman et al 2017). 

And of course some children dislike receiving praise. They hate the attention, or feel embarrassed by it. They might regard the praise to be undeserved, or insincere.

So how we avoid the bad stuff, and make sure we’re using praise wisely?

Here are some evidence-based guidelines

1. Remember that kids need our support and encouragement all the time — not just when they’ve accomplished something praiseworthy.

Praise can be beneficial, but it isn’t the only way that parents communicate their approval, acceptance, encouragement, love.

Kids need to know they have this support — especially at times when they are feeling lost, angry, or overwhelmed. 

So however your family handles the use of praise, be sure to consider the big picture: The overall warmth and supportiveness of your family relationships. And find ways to encourage kids when they’ve failed — not just when they’ve succeeded.

Once exciting (and easy to learn) approach is outlined in my article, “Correcting behavior: The magic words that help kids cope with mistakes.”

In addition, see my guides to positive parenting and emotion coaching, as well my article about rebellion and children’s needs for autonomy, and these evidence-based tips for handling disruptive or aggressive behavior.

2. Watch out for insincere praise — it can trigger bad feelings.

Kids might think we feel sorry for them, or that we are trying to be manipulative. Insincere praise might also send the message that we don’t really understand our children (Henderlong and Lepper 2002).

Do these problems arise for very young children? Maybe not. But once kids become mature enough to analyze our beliefs and motives, they may become sensitive to the effects of insincere praise (Mizokawa 2018). For many children, this shift occurs around the age of 4 or 5 years.

3. Be careful, too, about using extreme praise.

You’re perfect! You’re incredibly good at this!

Even if children believe we’re sincere, this kind of inflated, over-the-top praise can lead to trouble. It sets a crazy-high standard. How can a child hope to maintain it?

Once again, the youngest children might not perceive a problem. They lack the insight to worry about their future performance.

But as kids mature, things change. They don’t want to lose our respect and approval. So when they encounter a new challenge, they back off. They don’t want to risk failure. They don’t want to look bad.

Experiments suggest that children with low self esteem are especially prone to this effect (Brummelman et al 2014). And when researchers tracked 120 school-aged kids over time, they found worrying trends (Brummelman et al 2017). Kids who received lots of inflated praise from their parents were more likely to experience negative psychological outcomes:

  • Kids with low self-esteem at the beginning of the study were less likely to improve.
  • Kids with average levels of self-esteem were more likely to get worse.
  • And kids with high self-esteem went in a different direction. They were more likely to become narcissistic.

4. Avoid praising kids for achievements that come easily.

As kids get older, they become savvy to the implications. Either

  1. you’re clueless about easy nature of the task, or
  2. you have low expectations about a child’s abilities (Meyer 1992).

How early does this awareness emerge? It’s hard to know, and it doubtless depends cultural factors.

For example, if you live in a society where praise is rare, you probably won’t have the opportunity to learn that praise can be patronizing (Salili and Hau 1994).

But in places like the contemporary United States — where praise is common — kids show this understanding during the elementary school years (Barker and Graham 1987). 

5. Praise kids for things they can control — not for being gifted with special abilities.

You’re so smart! You’ve got talent! 

This praise might seem calculated to boost self-esteem and increase a child’s motivation. And it might work that way. Sometimes.

But research suggests that this kind of praise can backfire. And it’s for the same reason we’ve already mentioned: Kids can get worried about maintaining a high standard.

Carol Dweck and her colleagues have demonstrated the effect in a series of experimental studies. When we praise kids for their ability, kids become more cautious. They avoid challenges.

Kids might also get the message that intelligence or talent is something that people either have or don’t have. This leaves kids feeling helpless when they make mistakes. What’s the point of trying to improve if your mistakes indicate that you lack intelligence?

For these reasons, Dweck thinks it’s better to avoid praising kids for ability. Instead, praise them for things that they can clearly change — like their level of effort or the strategies they use. For more information on the effects of praise on intellectual performance, click here.

6. Beware of over-praising kids for doing things they enjoy

It’s okay to praise kids for doing what they like to do. But be careful not to go overboard—particularly with older kids. When you praise kids every time they do something they enjoy, it might actually reduce their motivation (Henderlong and Lepper 2002).

For example, suppose that Adam loves to eat broccoli. But every time he eats broccoli, his mom praises him for it. Consciously or unconsciously, Adam starts to question his motivation. Is he eating broccoli only for the praise? Adam changes his attitude toward broccoli-eating. It’s a chore, not a pleasure. If the praise ends, Adam loses interest in eating broccoli.

Does this sort of thing really happen? It’s been well-documented in cases where people are given tangible rewards each time they perform a particular behavior (e.g., giving your child some money each time he eats broccoli). The feedback appears to re-set a person’s attitude (Lepper and Henderlong 2000).

There’s less research showing that social rewards—like praise—can produce the same effect. However, a brain study reveals that social rewards (like praise) and tangible rewards (like money) activate the same regions of the brain (Izuma et al 2008). And a food-tasting experiment performed on children found that praise, like tangible rewards, made kids like a food less (Birch et al 1984).

7. Avoid praise that compares your child to others

At first blush, it might seem like a good idea to praise kids for out-performing their peers. After all, research has shown that such social-comparison praise enhances a child’s motivation and enjoyment of a task (see review in Henderlong and Lepper 2002).

But there are at least two big problems with social-comparison praise.

Problem #1: Social-comparison praise is only motivating as long as kids continue to finish first.

If their competitive edge slips, kids are likely to lose motivation.

In essence, kids who are accustomed to social-comparison praise become poor losers.

Consider this experiment on American 4th and 5th graders (Corpus et al 2006). Kids were given a set of puzzles to complete and received either

  • social-comparison praise
  • mastery praise (i.e., comments about how the child had mastered the task), or
  • no praise at all

Next, kids completed a second task. This time they were left without clear feedback about how they’d done.

How did this uncertainty affect each child’s motivation?

It depended on what kind of praise kids had received earlier. Those who had received social comparison praise suffered a loss of motivation. But kids who had received mastery praise showed enhanced motivation.

Problem #2: Social-comparison praise teaches kids that competitive standing, not mastery, is the goal.

When kids decide that the goal is to outperform other kids, they lack intrinsic motivation for a task. Work is only interesting insofar as it permits them to show that they are the best.

Even worse, these kids are so wrapped up in maintaining their competitive standing that they avoid challenges and opportunities to learn. Why tackle something new and risk failure? Social-comparison praise doesn’t prepare kids for coping with failure. Instead of trying to learn from their mistakes, these kids respond by feeling helpless (Elliot and Dweck 1988).

More to read

If this article was helpful, you might also enjoy these Parenting Science offerings about guiding children:

References: The effects of praise

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Content of “Effects of praise” last modified 12/2019

image of father talking to son on the grass by shutterstock / Treetree2016