The rich get richer and the poor get poorer ... possibly it is just this disheartening thought that causes sensitive adults to try to compensate when they perceive a particular child as having an impoverished sense of self-esteem. Yet researchers at Ohio State University found that inflated praise usually backfires when given to children with low self-esteem; dealt over-praise, the awkward-feeling child may withdraw even more when attempting new challenges. Meanwhile, those children with already high self-esteem thrive on extravagant encouragement. "It goes against what many people may believe would be most helpful," Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State, said. "But it really isn't helpful to give inflated praise to children who already feel bad about themselves."

Aiming for Healthy

Self-esteem is considered to be an individual’s overall opinion of him or herself — a gut truth feeling about one’s own abilities and limitations. In a series of three studies, Eddie Brummelman, a doctoral student in psychology at Utrecht University and visiting professor at Ohio State University, decided to investigate the impact "inflated praise” had on self-esteem. First, he wanted to understand how often adults changed the inflection of their encouragement in order to boost a child's sense of self-esteem. For example, how often do adults say to a child "you're good at this," which would be considered simple praise, versus "you're incredibly good at this," inflated praise? In the first of three studies, Brummelman and his colleagues found that adults gave twice as much inflated praise to children identified as having low self-esteem compared with those children with high self-esteem.

In a second study, Brummelman and his colleagues enlisted the help of 114 parents (88 percent mothers) and their children. Prior to the experiment, each child’s level of self-esteem was measured, and then the parents administered and scored 12 timed math exercises in their homes. All sessions were videotaped, the researchers absent from the scene. Afterward, the researchers watched each videotape and counted the number of times a parent praised a child and classified the praise as either inflated or non-inflated. The most common non-inflated statements included: "You're good at this!" and "Well done!," while the most common inflated praises included: "You answered very fast!"; "Super good!"; and "Fantastic!" Results of this second experiment proved parents praised their children about six times during a session, and roughly one quarter of the praise was inflated. More importantly, parents gave more inflated praise to children with low self-esteem than they did to children with high self-esteem.

"Parents seemed to think that the children with low self-esteem needed to get extra praise to make them feel better," Bushman said. In a final experiment, 240 children drew a famous van Gogh painting, Wild Roses, and then were given a note from someone identified as a "professional painter” who offered them either inflated, non-inflated, or no praise. After receiving the note, the children were asked to copy other pictures, but this time they would choose which ones to draw. Here, the researchers told the children they could select either an easy picture "but you won't learn much," or a more difficult picture and "you might make many mistakes, but you'll definitely learn a lot, too." So, what happened here?

Among the children who had received inflated praise, those with low self-esteem were more likely to choose the easier pictures while those with high self-esteem were more likely to choose the more difficult pictures. "If you tell a child with low self-esteem that they did incredibly well, they may think they always need to do incredibly well," Brummelman said, suggesting exagerrated encouragement may place too much pressure on those with low self-esteem. One lesson, then, for parents would be to fight their urge to give inflated praise to a child struggling with issues of self-worth. At the same time, adults might also try consider which elements hurt or help a child’s self-concept.

Effects of TV

Although many people suppose that children with the highest self-esteem do best in life, many psychologists believe it is more like Olympic scoring, where both the low and high scores are thrown out. The middle ground of self-esteem is where both health and high achievement can be found. Yet recently published research has added a slight twist to this general truth. Wanting to explore the effects of TV on self-esteem in children in the fourth grade, a team of researchers at the University of Hong Kong enrolled a total of 70,210 participants who self-reported their TV viewing hours between the years 1998 and 2000. The researchers then assessed each child’s self-esteem using the Culture-Free Self-Esteem Inventories for Children with subscales measuring self-esteem in four specific areas: general, parent-related, social, and academic. What they found might surprise many.

First, the team (happily) discovered that only 10.9 percent of the children watched more than four hours of TV per day, while 45.3 percent watched TV for one to two hours per day (moderate). But then they compared self-esteem scores for all the children. Here, they learned that, compared to the children who watched less than one hour of TV each day, those who watched a moderate amount of TV had more favorable self-esteem scores in the general, social, and parent-related subscales but lower scores in the academic subscale. Yet children who watched more than two hours of TV per day had lower self-esteem scores in all four subscales when compared to those who watched less than one hour per day. Clearly, the middle ground of TV watching may convey some important advantages to children ... other than in the realm of academics.

Sources: Brummelman E, Bushman B, Thomaes S, et al. “That’s not just beautiful—that’s incredibly beautiful!” The adverse impact of inflated praise on children with low self-esteem. Psychological Science. 2014.

Tin SP, Ho DS, Mak KH, et al. Association between television viewing and self-esteem in children. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. 2012.