Three Compliments That Destroy Self-Esteem in Childhood

Not all praise is positive. In fact, some compliments can actually destroy self-esteem in childhood.
Three Compliments That Destroy Self-Esteem in Childhood
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Every self-help book talks about how important praise is in childhood. There’s little doubt that it increases self-esteem and helps shape personality. In fact, praise is a really simple thing. For example, you might praise your child when they pass a test, do something really well, or draw something particularly nice.

However, does telling your child how well they do certain things and how you consider them to be absolutely wonderful, really make them self-confident and happy, as well as guarantee their good self-esteem?

“When someone criticizes me I can defend myself, but against praise I am defenseless.”

-Sigmund Freud-

The hidden face of praise

3 compliments that destroy your self-esteem in childhood (2)

Of course, it’s good to praise children for what they do. Indeed, a positive word helps them to continue and further develop their ability in order to achieve something or to do it better. For example, if they pass an exam and are praised, that’ll encourage them to continue studying and get better grades. Or, praise will help them make an effort to pass a subject that they don’t much like.

However, what happens when the praise becomes repetitive? What happens when children start to always expect a compliment and, surprisingly, don’t receive it? As a matter of fact, praise can make them choose the easy way out, instead of trying to improve themselves.

Moreover, praise can make them falter in what they don’t like. For instance, they may only want to achieve a positive result so that they’re praised. They don’t necessarily like the task. Therefore, it’s important for children not to expect a reward every time they do something.

They must understand the responsibility of doing what they’re doing. Furthermore, they must be consistent with the results they obtain in relation to their efforts.

“He that does good for good’s sake seeks neither paradise nor reward, but he is sure of both in the end.”

-William Penn-

Compliments that destroy self-esteem in childhood

girl self esteem

Focusing on the praise that children receive in their childhood, we find three fundamental compliments that we tend to believe promote self-esteem. However, they actually encourage the opposite.

1. Praising ability, not effort

This is a really serious error that leads to many problems. What really counts is hard work. Because even if they’re extremely intelligent, if they don’t make an effort, they won’t achieve anything.

For instance, have you ever heard of a student who has the ability to pass, but doesn’t take advantage of it? This implies a lack of effort. Effort should always be praised but praising ability can destroy self-esteem.

2. Praising in an exaggerated way

Some praise is greatly exaggerated. For example, saying “You’re a genius” or “You’re a real artist”, etc. In fact, these kinds of compliments can have a counterproductive effect on children, and instead of lifting them up and strengthening their self-esteem, achieve the opposite.

Therefore, you should learn to make more realistic compliments such as “I like that” or “That’s good”, but don’t artificially increase your child’s self-esteem because, if you tell them they’re a genius, they’ll believe it. This can lead them to stop trying.

3. Adding more pressure

When you praise your child, you sometimes put more pressure on them than you should. Consequently, if they consider that they’re a genius, they may think that they have to always maintain that status. This puts them under unnecessary pressure.

It’s important that children strive and overcome difficulties, but being pressured isn’t the same as feeling motivated. In fact, pressure could cause stress and anxiety in those so young.

“Some constructive criticism is sometimes necessary, helpful.”

-Dalai Lama-

Although the word ‘praise’ is something positive, as you can see, it can also be extremely negative if you don’t use it as you should. For this reason, you should learn to praise in the right way and understand that sometimes it isn’t necessary. It certainly shouldn’t be used excessively.

girl playing the violin

Praise, but praise their efforts. Don’t reward what’s easy or exaggerate your praise. It’s important that things are difficult to achieve, only then will children know their real value.

Images courtesy of Claudia Tremblay

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.