Could it be that parents needn’t worry so much about making sure their kids feel special and wonderful all the time?

Could it be that parents needn’t worry so much about making sure their kids feel special and wonderful all the time? Photo: Getty

We all know the type (particularly those of us who are deliberately barren). Little Olivia, Mason or Noah, the child prodigy who can do no wrong.

“How clever you are!” their parents exclaim*, at the slightest illegible scribble or mispronounced syllable.

This obsession with praise seems to have extended into our adulthood: criticism has become completely unbearable.

The slightest disagreements are answered with “it’s just my opinion”, as if the very fact of the speaker having a thought is enough to make it impervious to criticism.

Sensitively tippy-toeing over a disagreement with someone so as to ensure they don’t think you are undermining their very being seems entirely expected as well.

Researchers have long suspected that a parent’s instinct their child must be the smartest, most interesting and inherently adorable person on the face of the planet might not always turn out so well for the kid.

It turns out that little Caleb, Ella and Abigail might need a little bit more tough and a little bit less love when it comes to the way they are praised.

Researchers from the University of Illinois have done a neat study, for the first time looking at how parental praise given day-to-day affects the long-term goals of their children.

They did a set of daily interviews with 120 mums**, asking them how they responded to their children’s successes in school.

It turns out that the most common type of praise the parents gave is what is known as “person praise”, that is, telling they kid they are clever or good, or any other number of wonderful things.

Less common was the “process praise”, that is, praising how hard they worked or talking about how much they must enjoy doing their work.

And a funny thing happened to the kids who were constantly told how wonderful they were, rather than how wonderfully they were working: they stopped wanting to work so hard.

The researchers also interviewed the kids before and after the study about what they thought of intelligence – asking them to rate statements like “How smart you are is something you cannot change very much” – and also how much they liked to be challenged at school.

It turns out the kids who received the most “person praise” actually seemed to shift their beliefs about intelligence over the course of the study, and how hard they wanted to work.

They started thinking that academic success was just something you had, rather than something you work towards. Inherently smart kids, as these tweens understood things, just don’t need to try so hard.

(Although, I’m not sure it’s just a tween thing… I’m pretty sure I know quite a few adults who have that attitude).

“Children of the age participating in the current research often view ability and effort as inversely related,” the researchers wrote in the journal Developmental Psychology.

The bad news was that “process praise” didn’t seem to be protective of the kids, something that hasn’t always been found in other research.

Perhaps the answer is that parents needn’t worry so much about making sure their kids feel special and wonderful all the time.

And maybe us grown-ups, too, can relax a bit and embrace some personal failure, criticism and disagreement. I might be disagreeing with you, but really I'm only making you stronger! 

*Actually, I am completely guilty of this with every child I meet… little did I know I was secretly undermining them this whole time.

** Note, this study was really only of European American mothers, who were highly educated. Who knows the effect of “person praise” on kids from other backgrounds.