The Praise Paradox: when well-​intended words backfire

Reading time: 6 minutes

Most people would agree: praise is one of the most effective ways to build children’s self-esteem. We are told to be generous with our praise, and to find as many opportunities as possible to praise children so they feel good, learn better, and perform well. It’s such common knowledge, we don’t even question it. But is it true that praise unequivocally raises children’s self-esteem and motivation? The reality is a bit more complex: the praise paradox shows that praise can sometimes be detrimental.

The danger of the praise paradox

In their book Between Parent and Child, Haim Ginott, Alice Ginott, and Wallace Goddard explain: “When twelve-year-old Linda arrived at the third level of her video game, her father exclaimed, ‘You’re great! You have perfect coordination! You’re an expert player.’ Linda lost interest and walked away. Her father’s praise made it difficult for her to continue because she said to herself, ‘Dad thinks I’m a great player, but I’m no expert. I made the third level by luck. If I try again, I may not even make the second level. It is better to quit while I’m ahead.’”

A famous French proverb says: “L’enfer est pavé de bonnes intentions” — which can be roughly translated as “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The praise paradox is such an example of good intentions which may lead to negative outcomes. Thousands of parents and teachers are showering children with praise, not realising they may actually demotivate them and prevent them from overcoming challenges.

Contrary to what many people believe, not all praise is effective; some types of praise may even be counterproductive. Knowing how and when to praise children for their success is crucial to support them on their learning journey and to foster their personal growth.

Not all praise is made equal

Praise can be defined based on two criteria: what is being praised, and how much it is being praised. We can praise someone’s abilities (“You are so talented!”), or we can praise their efforts (“You must have worked so hard!”). We can give appropriate praise (“You did very well this time!”) or inflated praise (“This is your best work ever!”). Each type of praise will have a different impact on someone’s self-esteem and future motivation levels.

The four dimensions of the praise paradox

That’s where the praise paradox comes from. Researchers explain: “Adults are inclined to give children with low self-esteem person praise (e.g., “You’re smart!”) and inflated praise (e.g., “That’s incredibly beautiful!”). Paradoxically, such praise can lower these children’s motivation and feelings of self-worth in the face of setbacks (e.g., when they struggle or fail). Lowered feelings of self-worth, in turn, might invite more person praise and inflated praise from adults, creating a self-sustaining downward spiral.”

Inflated praise in particular may backfire and lower a child’s self-esteem. Professor Eddie Brummelman from the University of Amsterdam conducted a study to explore the relationship between inflated praise from parents and their children’s self-esteem. “Parents gave more inflated praise to those who seemed to need it the most: children with lower levels of self-esteem. But parents’ efforts were unsuccessful. Rather than raising self-esteem, inflated praise predicted lower self-esteem in children over time. In fact, the more parents gave inflated praise, the lower the child’s self-esteem, even 18 months later.”

Person praise and inflated praise can also foster a fixed mindset. Richard Farson, the co-founder and president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, explains: “Undoubtedly, the most threatening aspect of praise is the obligation it puts on us to be praise-worthy people. If we accept praise, if we really believe the best about ourselves, then we are under an obligation to behave accordingly. (…) The responsibility to be continually at our best, to live up to our talents and abilities, is perhaps our most difficult problem in living.”

Of course, it doesn’t mean we should never give praise to a child. But we need to be mindful of the words we choose and what aspect of their work we focus on. By giving children the right kind of praise, we can increase their motivation and their self-esteem.

From expectations to motivation

To be effective, praise should be honest, empathetic, and focused on effort rather than abilities. Instead of praising a child for who they are, we should praise them for what they did; instead of showering them with inflated flattery, we should keep our comments as close to reality as possible. There are three ways to give effective praise:

  • Define the value we want to teach. Before giving praise to someone, ask yourself: what exactly am I trying to communicate? What do I want the person to take away from my comment? Being intentional when praising someone’s work is one of the best ways to ensure our well-intended words don’t backfire. Define the intention, then give appropriate praise.
  • Replace flattery with encouragement. We often think that flattery is an effective way to increase someone’s self-esteem, but as we have seen above, it’s actually the opposite. Instead of fostering a fixed mindset and low self-esteem by making nice comments about the work that has been done, encourage the person to keep on learning by reminding them of their progress curve. For instance: “This essay is much better than the previous one, I can’t wait to read the next one!”
  • Focus on effort rather than ability. Praising someone for what are considered fixed traits — such as intelligence, talent, or physical abilities — can create anxiety and lower their willingness to experiment and challenge themselves. As an alternative, consider praising their efforts: how hard they worked, how difficult the task must have been, how well they faced the challenges they met along the way. By praising their efforts, you will motivate them to keep on pushing their boundaries and getting out of their comfort zone.

As you can see, the praise paradox shows that not all praise is good, but not all praise is bad either. As often, the way we communicate is complex and paved with potential pitfalls. In order to help people around us to become the best version of themselves, we need to be intentional in the way we convey our support. Be clear about your intentions, avoid flattery, and focus on effort rather than ability, and you will be the best cheerleader there can be.