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Praise That Works

By Deborah Williams

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Sometimes the area between encouragement and indifference becomes quite fuzzy for parents.  Most well-intentioned parents want to encourage their children with positive reinforcement, so praising their children seems like obvious behavior for them.  However, NPR’s Poncie Rutsch explains on the Mind Shift website that some types of praise that parents give their children can lead to narcissism, but other types of praise can “raise the child’s self-esteem and keep her ego in check.”

Ohio State University communications and psychology professor Brad Bushman led a group of researchers who polled parents about how they showed appreciation for their child’s accomplishments.  Those results were compared with the children’s levels of self-esteem—valuing one’s self as equal worth with other people—and narcissism—thinking you are better than other people.  “When he analyzed the results from the surveys, Bushman found that the more narcissistic children had parents who consistently overvalued their accomplishments.”  After monitoring the children for 18 months, he had particular concern about narcissism because of its connection to aggressive and violent behavior.  Those children are less likely to have empathy for others.

Bushman warns parents to refrain from telling a child that he is 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 failed will work harder next time.”  The researchers have found that it’s also important for parents to enhance a child’s self-esteem because it reduces the incidence of depression and anxiety in later years.  To foster better self-esteem in children, Bushman suggests that parents not tell a child that she’s special.  It is better to express warmth by saying something like “I love you.”

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