Punishing with Praise

All the parents I know want to praise their children and make them feel special. From an early age, most of us (myself included) want to celebrate our kids as much as we can. We clap when they roll over or hold up their heads for the first time. We practically throw a party when they mumble their first word, however unintelligible it might be. Every drawing should hang in the Louvre and every song should grace a Broadway stage. After all, if we don’t build up our kid’s self-esteem, who will?

But, is this praise helpful or harmful? New evidence shows that certain types of praise can actually backfire, making kids less successful and giving them low self-esteem.

One recent report explains the results of two experiments that compare the results of “person praise” (praise for personal qualities) and “process praise” (praise for behavior). Overall, person praise (“You are so smart!”) predisposed children to feel ashamed following failure, since they attributed the failure to their own self – some intrinsic quality. Process praise (“You worked really hard!”), on the other hand, did not have this effect, as children attributed failure to a factor that they can control – some extrinsic quality.

A similar study reveals the results of three experiments that tested the effects of inflated praise. Overall, inflated praise sent the message that kids need to continue to meet unreasonably high standards. Inflated praise decreased challenge-seeking behavior in children with low self-esteem, causing them to miss out on learning experiences. However, in children with high self-esteem, inflated praise had the opposite effect. It inspired these kids to continue to set high expectations for themselves.

Generic person-centered praise implies that a child has a specific quality, such as intelligence, aptitude, or other talent, that is responsible for his or her achievements. Non-generic process-centered praise implies that a child’s achievements are performance-based. Person praise has been found to increase the attention that kids pay to errors – their own and others. Such attention is caused by the belief that an error threatens the possession of a positive trait. Further, after an error or failure, children who received person praise displayed less task persistence, less task enjoyment, and worse task performance.

In general, inflated and/or person-centered praise undermines motivation in children with low self-esteem. However, when sincere process-centered praise is heaped upon children, it encourages performance that is attributed to controllable causes, promotes autonomy, and establishes attainable standards and expectations.

We all think our children are great, and so we should. But, as parents we must also be mindful of setting our kids up for failure with inappropriate praise. Praising hard work seems to be a much better motivator than praising intrinsic qualities that the child has no control over.

Achievement is the result of performance and behavior, not always inherent traits, and children should be motivated to love learning, engage in new experiences, and even risk failure to achieve goals. Praise should help children flourish, instead of becoming an obstacle to success.


Brummelman E, Thomaes S, Orobio de Castro B, Overbeek G, & Bushman BJ (2014). “That’s Not Just Beautiful–That’s Incredibly Beautiful!”: The Adverse Impact of Inflated Praise on Children With Low Self-Esteem. Psychological science PMID: 24434235

Cimpian A (2010). The impact of generic language about ability on children’s achievement motivation. Developmental psychology, 46 (5), 1333-40 PMID: 20822242
Henderlong, J. and M.R. Lepper, The effects of praise on children’s intrinsic motivation: a review and synthesis. Psychol Bull, 2002. 128(5): p. 774-95. PMID: 12206194

Mueller CM, & Dweck CS (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of personality and social psychology, 75 (1), 33-52 PMID: 9686450

Zentall SR, & Morris BJ (2010). “Good job, you’re so smart”: The effects of inconsistency of praise type on young children’s motivation. Journal of experimental child psychology, 107 (2), 155-63 PMID: 20570281

Zentall SR, & Morris BJ (2012). A critical eye: praise directed toward traits increases children’s eye fixations on errors and decreases motivation. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 19 (6), 1073-7 PMID: 23011909

Image via Christin Gasner / Shutterstock.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
See All Posts By The Author