Praise has become something of a loaded subject with regard to kids, one tangled up in debates over self-esteem, academic pressure, and how to raise people who know how to work for what they want. There’s a Goldilocks effect at play: You don’t want to go overboard, but neither do you want to be too unenthused. And a study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science showed how important it is for parents to get it just right.
For the study, researchers recruited 337 South Korean kids in third, fourth, and fifth grades, along with their parents. Each kid filled out two separate surveys: one ranking how much their parents under- or overpraised them for their performance in school, and the other describing any symptoms of depression they might have. The parents, meanwhile, answered a similar questionnaire about how much they praised their child, one about how closely they kept tabs on how their kids were doing in school, and one about their own academic credentials and household income.
The best outcome, the authors found, happened when adults praised children in equal measure to their accomplishments, rather than piling it on as motivation (or withholding it as motivation, for that matter). When parents believed they were lavishing praise on a kid that hadn’t earned it — or, on the other end of the spectrum, if they believed they didn’t praise them as much as they deserved — their children tended to do worse in school and to show greater symptoms of depression. The same was true from the kids’ perspective. When they felt like the effort they were putting in didn’t match the parental feedback they were getting, their grades and mental health both suffered. (With one exception: “When children felt that their parents’ praise was slightly (but not majorly) overstated, this had at least as beneficial effects as when they felt the praise accurately reflected reality,” the authors wrote.)
All of which is to say: Praise is more than just a reaction. “Praise, just like feedback, should be understood as an interactive process, with consideration given to how it is perceived, accepted, and responded to by the recipient,” the researchers argued. “If parents and educators feel uneasy when they think about the accuracy of the praise they offer, they should take this as a warning sign” — and retool, in either direction.