Praise causes failure!

I know it does, but I still do it; it is ingrained in me that praising is proper parenting behaviour and I am really having to work hard to break the habit.


It starts with “What a clever girl, you ate all your greens!”

and goes on “What a brilliant picture!”

and on “You’re a great teenager!”

and on “Really, you look perfect!”

and on “You’re so kind – such a good friend!”

and on…

Praise is patronising.  It is paralysing.  It is impersonal.

It’s patronising.  You wouldn’t do it to your adult friends, so why to your young ones?

It’s paralysing.  Superlative praise is impossible to live up to.

It’s impersonal.  General praise is meaningless, especially when dished out indiscriminately.


Although praise may temporarily give a boost, it often doesn’t even do that.  Children discount the superlatives, and discard parents’ opinions as biased.  Praise can even make a child feel worse because it conjures up in their minds all the times when they aren’t good, perfect, or kind.

No wonder they hate it.  Especially our teens, they’re so onto us with the whole ‘praise me to get me behaving how you want me to.’

We also praise to please, and we praise to bolster, and we praise to motivate.  And yet praise does the opposite of all three.  Research shows that children who are praised perform less well and like themselves less.  This may seem paradoxical at first; but when a child is constantly told how clever they are, the pressure to match up causes them to do less well.  Some children were set a maths test and afterwards half were praised and the other half were not – then they were set another harder test, and not only did the praised group perform less well, but they lied about their results to make themselves seem better.


A strong self-esteem does not come from someone else’s compliments.  If you come to rely on another’s commendation for a sense of well-being, you become dependent on others for your sense of self, which never feels solid.

Real self confidence comes from being truly seen and heard.  A child can experience this when an adult clearly chooses to spend time with them, and then that adult listens and pays attention, and any remarks that adult makes demonstrate the quality of their attention:

“You ate all you greens, did you enjoy them?”

“Your picture has a lot of pinks, reds and oranges…”

“Now that you spend more time with your friends, our family mealtimes seem so precious.”

“You’ve done your hair differently today.”

“Your friends seem to call on you for support.”

 Praise ends conversations  ~  while noticing and describing starts them.

Parents who praise are often trying to make a change from their own childhoods when inconsiderate criticism was cast out without much thought.  Now it’s praise that is flung about and this is just as damaging.

Praising turns out to be a hard habit to break.  Just start by observing, and when you say something, be specific rather than general, and say what you see without passing judgement on it.  You may find that this initiates some really illuminating conversations with your daughter.


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Posted on 8 March 2013
Musings: Parenting girls, Parenting teenagers
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

6 or so comments

6 Responses to Praise causes failure!

  1. Wow, that’s a really interesting post. I praise my children A LOT, but I think they deserve it. I praise them for trying hard and for ashieving – whether it’s sport, school work, music, danincg, drawing or even eating more than usual. I’d never considered that it might not be good for them.
    Found you on Britmums MBPW.

    • Kim says:

      I am learning that far more powerful than my praise is what my children are saying to themselves in their heads. If their own self-talk is positive, along the lines of ‘I did it! That was hard but I did it!’ or ‘It’s not quite how I wanted it to go, but I think I did my best and next time I’ll…’ or ‘This is something I love, and I enjoy it even though others are better than me.’ So I am training myself to ask them how they enjoyed something, or how they feel about how something went, rather than praising them myself.

  2. This is really interesting. Shy is just turned one, and at first when I was reading I was a bit sceptical but your bottom explanation and examples made a lot of sense. Even though she is young, I do a lot of “good girl” when she does something like take steps because I know she likes to hear it. Although I’m not sure how much she would understand “Yay! You’ve taken some steps… Well done” but maybe accompanied with a smile it would have the same affect?

    • Kim says:

      I’ve found a good test for myself is to think ‘would I speak to an adult friend like this?’ if not, then it is probably patronising. Also, I really want to equip my children with their own self-affirming voice, rather than needing to hear it from me. After all, ultimately I want them to be able to tune into their own voice and not become children who are living to please me and to gain my approval. I want them to know their own heart, have their own sense of what is right, and have the inner conviction to follow that. I think that my praising them can prevent that.

  3. caroline says:

    I have always been a big praiser I,m a ‘caretaker type’ so it feels like I always want to support them constantly by saying how well they are doing . However I see now that they are 13 and 9 how detrimental this has been, my youngest tends to be negative about his work and my daughter is quite unmotivated about doing things .. I can really see that they just shut off when I give them a compliment as they have heard them so much they now feel empty to them. I have heard about this theory or non praising before and have tried to practice it they immediately asked why I commented rather than praised them, I felt kind of found out a little … anyway again its something to practice do you think its too late and the damage is done ??

    • Kim says:

      No, never too late.
      At 13 and 9 years old, if they notice a change in how you are with them, then it gives you an opportunity to explain to them what you are trying to do and why. You want them to know that you notice and care about how they are doing – and you also want them to feel self-motivated and good about themselves from within (and not relying on someone else’s opinion).
      They will take their lead from you – so take care to make the most of your own strengths and not to judge yourself harshly. Do for yourself what you want them to do for themselves.
      I am keen to hear how it goes…
      Warm wishes, Kim

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