Join Date: Jul 2008
I've heard that a popular belief has been that low self-esteem is really damaging to children, so people were often advised to praise them a lot; but now it's been discovered that high self-esteem is just as damaging if not more so, as this thread illustrates. In fact, I've read and heard that it's been found that when people have an unrealistically high opinion of themselves, it can help perpetuate violence in some cases. A researcher called Roy Baumeister apparently found that prisoners with a record of violent crime often had an unrealistically high opinion of themselves, and would react violently when people didn't treat them as if they were superior. Even minor insults could prompt them to react far more strongly than a lot of people would. One of the fears about low self-esteem was that bullies often had low self-esteem. But they apparently often have overly-high self-esteem.
Research on praise has found several things that are to some extent just common sense, but are interesting findings that are worth taking note of:
I read a book by someone called Stan Davis, about making schools more child-friendly in order to reduce bullying.
He says research has found that one type of praise that can be unhealthy is praise that makes people think they're great or smart or special, or that kind of thing, without them having a good reason to think so, praise that might unintentionally make them think they don't have to try to behave any better because they're so good already. He says he himself has spoken to teachers who've said that when they've told some children they're talented or smart, they've stopped bothering to work hard. Other teachers have said some children describe themselves as kind, even though they hurt others.
He says parents can unwittingly make children think like that. He's found that when they're interviewed, they can admit their children hit or tease others, but say they're kind really.
And he says he's found that if children are taught that they're great or special, they can feel superior to others, and so behave badly towards them, because they think the others are inferior and so not so worthy of being respected. Or they can think they're entitled to praise when they're not.
He talks about what kind of praise is best for children and what kind isn't so good:
One thing he says is that too much praise that can make people think that they're liked because of what they do isn't a good thing, because If children start thinking they're liked or loved because they do well at something or behave well, for instance if they think things like, "My teacher likes me because I don't cause trouble", on the one hand it could motivate them to carry on doing those things, but it can lead them to base their self-worth on what other people think of them, and so they might develop an unhealthy need for the approval of others, not thinking well of themselves unless someone's praising them.
He says that on the other hand, healthy praise influences people to link their opinion of themselves to what they do, regardless of what other people think of them. For instance, when children think things like, "When I work hard, I get higher grades", or, "When I control my temper, I stop myself behaving in a way that gets me into trouble", then they link positive things like their feelings of self-worth to something they can have control of like their behaviour. So that can motivate them to behave better, because they know the benefits for them are likely to increase if they do, so they can make themselves feel better about themselves all by themselves.
He says it was found in research spanning thirty years that surprisingly, if people were told things like, "You're good at this", or, "I'm proud of you", it could have the same negative effect later when the children were under stress as it did if they had been told things like, "You're a failure", or "I'm disappointed in you". The reason was that if the children had come to think their achievements were all to do with their personality or in-born abilities, or that they were only really approved of when they did well, rather than thinking their achievements had to do with something they could control like their behaviour or the amount of time and effort they put into working on something, they felt helpless when things weren't going well for them, because they weren't so optimistic that they could control things if they tried, and thought they couldn't make others feel good any more because they weren't doing well.
Whether the research findings would be replicated by similar studies, or whether there were flaws in the methodology of the research, I don't know. But it's likely that there was at least some truth in the findings.
The research found that both the children who'd had their personalities praised and those who'd had them criticised tended to avoid difficult tasks, because of their lack of confidence in their abilities to do well in difficult circumstances, which in each case lowered their self-worth so they felt less capable, making the children who'd been told they were talented think they couldn't be that good at things after all, and confirming the children who'd been told they were failures in their beliefs that they were.
Right. That was your daily dose of doom and gloom. Here's the good news:
The research found that what did encourage children to attempt difficult tasks and not to give up on challenges was feedback that complimented them for how hard they were trying, and focused on helping them develop their problem-solving abilities by encouraging them to think of new ways of doing things, for instance, by using sentences like, "You found a good way to do that. Can you think of other ways that would work?" or, "Can you think of anything you can change about the way you're doing this to help you do it better?"
For instance, the researcher suggested that if a child paints a beautiful picture, teachers etc. can spend time admiring it by asking them how they selected the colours and got the inspiration to paint the images the way they did, and that kind of thing. Or if a child successfully solves some complicated maths problems, a teacher can ask admiringly how they worked out how to solve them, and say things that let them know they admire the concentration that went into the effort.
And they can do similar things with behaviour changes they notice in children, like admiring their new self-control and asking them what strategies they've found to control their temper.
Another type of phrase people can use to show students they realise they're making efforts, and to encourage them to stick to them, is one that goes like, "I've noticed you've been staying out of fights. That tells me you're working on getting on with people", or, "I've noticed you're starting schoolwork as soon as the lesson starts and not giving up till you've finished. That tells me you're making a serious effort to learn."
Davis says it's been found that sometimes, children who hadn't intentionally been trying to do what someone said they realised they're doing start doing it deliberately after a compliment like that.
He says another good way of praising children is if teachers/parents remark on the positive results of their actions that they're sure must be happening or that they've seen happening, using comments like, "It's good that now you stay out of fights, you get to spend more free time playing with other kids", or, "Now you don't tease people any more, I notice you're making new friends".
He says when children receive compliments like that, they can start noticing for themselves what differences their behaviour changes are making, so it gives them more incentive to carry on with the changes. They see that their behaviour changes are benefiting them. That gives them far more motivation to carry on changing than if they thought that all that their changes were achieving was making adults pleased with them. He says What will convince them to change most is if they can tell that their own needs for friendship and security and other things are being met better by the changes they're making.
He says it's often better to compliment children privately if possible, especially for people commenting on how they're not bullying so much, to spare them embarrassment in front of others. He says perhaps compliments can be said quietly while walking past their desks, written on a note, or mentioned as teachers pass them in the school hall.
He says when children are praised in ways that strengthen their confidence in their abilities and give them the motivation to continue making efforts, teachers can build up bonds of friendship with them. Children can feel as if teachers care about them if they've taken time to comment on the good things they're doing. If they feel cared for, it can be another incentive for them to behave well.