Making More Effective Use of Praise

Praise consists of two parts:
What we say to the child and what he, in turn, says to himself.
— Haim Ginott

Back in 2002, I wrote up some simple pointers for educators and parents in “Hone Your Skills When Using Reinforcers and Reprimands.” Over a decade later, new research1 suggests that it is time to refine or tweak that advice.

In a fascinating pair of studies, Eddie Brummelman and colleagues looked at what type of praise adults tend to use with low self-esteem children and the impact of person praise vs. process praise on children’s self-esteem if they have low self-esteem. The children in their study were 8-13 years old.

Person praise is praise that refers to the child’s attributes or qualities, such as “You’re so smart!” or “You’re a great organizer!” or “Way to go, math wizard!” In contrast, process praise is behavior-directed, such as “You never gave up!” or “You worked really hard on that project!”

Using a sample of parents in the Netherlands, the investigators found that parents were more likely to use person praise with children who had low self-esteem. That approach might seem intuitively appealing if person praise might boost the child’s self-esteem, but it turns out that person praise might backfire in children with low self-esteem by making them more vulnerable to shame following failure.

So children with low self-esteem may be told by well-intended teachers or parents, “You’re so smart!” but when the children subsequently experience failure or non-success, they may then tell themselves, “I’m not smart enough.” Compare that to having told the child, “You tried so hard!” where when the child subsequently experiences failure, they may feel some shame, but will tell themselves, “I didn’t try hard enough.” Which is better for their self-esteem?

The Netherlands study needs additional research and replication, but in light of their data, I think the take-home message for now is that if you are teaching or parenting a child with low self-esteem, praise can be helpful, but praise the behavior, not the child.


1Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Overbeek, G., Orobio de Castro, B., van den Hout, M. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2013, February 18). On Feeding Those Hungry for Praise: Person Praise Backfires in Children With Low Self-Esteem. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031917