Child Self-esteem: How Much Is Praise Worth?

Posted November 1, 2011 by

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Want to improve your child’s self-esteem? Praise him constantly and stop anything that may hurt his perception of being a competent, achieving person. With every success, your child will see that he is a winner and will continue to achieve. Sounds like good advice doesn’t it? Well, it is terribly misguided.

In the spring 1999 issue of American Educator, Carol S. Dwek’s article entitled, “Caution – Praise Can Be Dangerous” examines the effects of praising children.

In almost 30 years of research Dweck has found that children who were constantly praised could not adapt well to new challenges. They were obsessed with their intelligence and with proving it to others. These children constantly feared failure and believed that not succeeding at a task meant they were dumb. This stifled their growth leading them to give up easily or to not try at all when they perceived that something was too difficult. Dweck also knew of students who did not pride themselves as much on their intelligence, but rather pn their work ethic and ability to face challenges. A study on the two groups was done to see if praising children for being intelligent could cause them to become dependent on praise.

One group (Group A) was praised for their intelligence in working a puzzle, “Wow, you must be smart at this.” and another group (Group B) was praised for their effort, “I can tell you worked really hard.” The result? Group A wanted to quit when they were given a more difficult puzzle, but Group B enjoyed the new challenge and was willing to work harder.

In summary, Group A’s confidence depended on their success with the problems. The group members needed praise believing that if they couldn’t do something well, they would rather not do it at all. Group B simply saw the more difficult problem as a challenge and was willing to put forth the effort to solve it. Group A crumbled under the pressure, but Group B retained their intellectual self-esteem.

So, what should we do? Dweck recommends focusing on a student’s potential to learn, teaching them to value challenge, effort, and learning over looking smart. Otherwise, a lost ballgame or “F” on a test could weaken an already fragile self-image.

Well, what if the outcome is not favorable and your child still did his best? Encouragement is what is needed here and in almost every situation. There is a small but definite difference between encouragement and praise. Tell your child that he’s a hard worker or that you’re proud of the way he handled a particular situation. This will let him know that you believe in him and don’t expect him to be perfect. Then, as tougher challenges arise, he’ll be able to answer them because he believes in his own strengths and does not need the constant praise of others.


Dale Sadler is the author of 28 Days to A Better Marriage and How to Argue with Your Teen & Win. By day he works with middle schoolers and by night he is a family counselor specializing in marriage, parenting and men's issues. He works hard to be the husband and father his family needs. Follow him @DaleSadlerLPC or visit

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  1. Sue Balding (Edit) Report

    Self-esteem. I can relate to the affect of praise backfiring on a parent. My daughter who is dyslexic, which impacts self-esteem hugely, taught me a lesson on praise. I was commenting on how well she was doing and praising her as usual. She turned to me (probably age 7 or so) and said, “Mommy, I know you think I can and lots of other people say the same thing, but I know that I CAN’T.” So praise was not encouraging her to “try harder” (another one of my pet peve descriptions that I hate) because she knew in herself that it was not possible to succeed. “Why are people saying that about me when I know I can’t?” Not being able to read like other children (such an easy thing to do for most children) was a huge deflating balloon in her self-esteem. From this I learned to be a better listener of my daughter and encouraging her to share her feelings. Then it worked best to “compliment” her, i.e., “That dress looks GREAT on you!”, or, “The color purple sure is you!” When we don’t allow our children to learn about the parts about themselves that are not perfect, and how to deal with that, we fall into the pit of making them feel that they HAVE TO be perfect. Balance is so important in our words and how we choose them. Too much praise can harm just as too much negativity does too. It takes four “attagirls” to make up for one slip in the negative. Pay attention.

  2. patrice (Edit) Report

    This is excellent information. Thanks for sharing it. As a therapist with teens myself, I’ve seen how paralyzing praise can be to kids. It’s true, they won’t want to try new things if it will reveal in them a perceived deficiency.



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