The Dark Side of Praise

What should parents do when their children do something well? Praise them, of course! Praise them with statements like: “You are so smart.” “That is a beautiful picture.” “Good job cleaning your room.”  Well…at least common knowledge on the street says to praise a job well done. However, praise does have a dark side. Let me give you three examples from the dark side of praise.

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When we praise our children by attributing their success to some natural ability, we create an environment primed for underachievement! In one study, two groups of students were praised for completing a puzzle. One group was praised for their natural ability–“You are really smart.” The other group was praised for their effort—”You worked hard on that puzzle.” Sometime later, both groups were given the opportunity to choose another puzzle to complete: a hard puzzle or an easy puzzle. The children who had been praised for their natural ability overwhelmingly chose the easy puzzle while those children praised for their effort choose the harder, more challenging, puzzle. Attributing our children’s success to natural ability means they have no power to influence their success.  It is natural to them or they cannot do it. And, to fail means “my ability is limited…and so am I.”  A person cannot change what they have no power over. Attributing success to effort, on the other hand, gives our children a realistic measure of control. They can accept a challenge because they believe that exerting more effort will bring greater success.


Another study found that students quickly identified insincere praise. Students learned that praise from their teacher actually indicated a student’s limited ability. They learned their teachers tended to praise the poorer students, those with less ability, in an effort to encourage them to perform better. In other words, students recognize blarney when they hear it…and so will our kids!


One other aspect of the dark side of praise is seen in excessive praise. When we overpraise our children, they learn to work only for the praise. They may also seek constant reassurance, doubting their ability unless fawned over with praise. Or, an activity with little inherent praise (like household chores or expected study habits) will leave them unmotivated, uninterested. They only have interest in receiving praise, not in learning and achieving for the intrinsic joy of doing so.


Praise is not all bad though. Here are four tips to avoid the dark side of praise and stay in the light.

  • Recognize effort. Rather than giving praise that involves some global, non-descript label (“You are such a good girl”), recognize effort invested (“You really studied for that test”).
  • Show interest and recognize specifics. Don’t just praise the whole finished project (“Oh, that’s beautiful”). Instead, ask a few specific questions: like “How did you choose that color?” “Where did you come up with that idea?” Find out more about their project and their thoughts behind the project. Then, recognize some specific aspect of the finished project, like “I like the combination of colors you chose.” “You show creativity in the way that character solved his problem.”
  • Don’t rush in. Step back. When your children appear stuck, step back and wait. Don’t rush in to fix, correct, or help. Let them struggle to find their own solution. Then recognize their effort. Acknowledge the solution and a specific aspect of that solution that you find especially creative, unique, or interestingly.
  • Finally, reframe failure. I love the way the Robinsons respond to failure in “Meet the Robinsons.” (Click Here to watch) Failure was a celebration, an opportunity to learn. Celebrating failure as an opportunity to learn gives our children the freedom to put in effort, fail, learn, and continuing working toward a better solution…tying the first three points together.


Don’t go to the dark side…of praise.  With a little thought and effort, you can easily step into the light and enjoy the benefits of well-spoken encouragement and praise.

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