A tsunami of praise

Drowned in unconditional praise, a generation has been left with damaged self-esteem. What should parents and educators have done instead?

 Illustration by  Paul Weiner

Illustration by Paul Weiner

Under the principles of a warped esteem movement, well-intentioned adults drowned children in a tsunami of unconditional praise peppered with declarations about special abilities. Dr Nathaniel Branden, described as the father of the self-esteem movement, wrote: "Feelings of self-esteem are the key to success in life.” He defined self-esteem as “the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the challenges of life and as deserving of happiness.” For Branden, true self-esteem consists of confidence both in one’s abilities and in one’s right to happiness.

Importantly, he added the caveat that such confidence must be fostered through effort and embedded in reality. In the 1980s, an esteem-building approach to parenting and teaching gained significant popularity. Yet, as Branden himself cautioned, many popular interpretations of his central concepts were “oversimplif[ied] sugar-coat[ed] pop psychology” and contrary to his initial intentions. Others echo this sentiment and have described those raised in the esteem culture as the victims of a failed parenting strategy.

Children raised in the esteem wave grew up hearing “You’re so smart!” and “You can do anything!” instead of being praised for their efforts. Such excessive praise can lead to a damaging need for external validation where children’s sense of worth stems from how they are viewed and treated by others. Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University notes the manner in which praise can disconnect individuals from their work: “When you praise someone, you are making their actions and performance yours. So they’re looking over their shoulder and not owning their work.” Branden labelled this 'other esteem' or 'pseudo-esteem' and spoke critically of modern conceptualisations of his theories. He expressed concerns that parents were impeding feelings of accountability and responsibility. Indeed, heavy critiques of the self-esteem movement have littered the media for decades.

 
  Carol Dweck, author of   Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.   Bengt Lennartsson/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Bengt Lennartsson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

One such article, published in 1990 in Time, described American school students as irrationally overconfident. These students had been subjected to what the author called a self-esteem curriculum. Despite displaying the lowest performance relative to five groups of international peers, American students ranked number one in their tendency to agree with the statement: “I am good at mathematics.” Branden directly addressed the Time article and acknowledged that “within the limits of this naive and primitive understanding of self-esteem, the criticisms of self-esteem curriculums … are justified.” Yet, Branden emphasised that arrogance, boasting and narcissism are not displays of true confidence but rather the products of too little self-esteem.

With this in mind, perhaps Millennials are not the narcissistic snowflakes with victim complexes some have labelled them, but rather a group of individuals plagued by low self-worth and fractured identities. Simon Sinek, a marketing consultant and New York Times best-selling author, said about Millennials: “We have a generation growing up with lower self-esteem that doesn’t have the coping mechanisms to deal with stress.” He has spoken extensively about the interaction between poor self-esteem, excessive digital engagement and a culture of immediacy. Sinek is concerned about the Millennial generation’s ability to perform in the workplace. Having grown up in a culture of praise and participation medals,  Millennials enter the workforce and “in an instant their entire self-image is shattered”.

Children who are praised for attributes that are perceived as innate (eg IQ, athletic talent) tend to build a fixed identity around such statements (eg “I am a smart athletic person”). These children develop what many call a fixed mindset. Fixed mindsets breed anxiety, fragility, and defensiveness in response to criticism. Where individuals believe themselves innately gifted, they struggle to cope when reality shows them to be lacking. Dweck notes the vulnerability of children with fixed mindsets: “Would children want to take on challenging things if they think [their ability is] their claim to fame? It would discredit this valuable, permanent quality.” Such individuals tend to see criticism as a direct affront to their identity and often have difficulties in their social and occupational pursuits.

 
  A person with a fixed mindset believes that their abilities are innate.   Pixabay  (CC0)

A person with a fixed mindset believes that their abilities are innate. Pixabay (CC0)

 

Fixed mindsets prevent engagement with feedback. Further, apparently gifted individuals may develop feelings of entitlement and a diminished sense of personal responsibility. Multiple theorists have attempted to explain the manner in which excessive praise may be causally linked to the development of such traits. Whilst some blame an addiction to praise, others see feelings of superiority or dysfunctional parental attachment as the cause.

Regardless, what’s clear is that individuals with fixed mindsets miss the growth opportunity that criticism offers. Indeed, sensing room for personal improvement and having the desire to evolve is not contrary to the principles of self-love. Branden wrote: “To be self-accepting does not mean to be without a wish to change, improve, evolve.” Regarding his one-on-one work with psychotherapy clients, he noted: “I often see that the most radical transformation occurs after the client’s realisation that no one is coming to the rescue.” This change to an internal locus of control is an indicator of a shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

Individuals with growth mindsets believe that performance is dependent upon effortful learning and practice. One way that parents and educators can encourage one mindset over another is through the feedback they give children; specifically, which behaviours they choose to praise. Dweck explains: “[Teachers and parents should] praise the effort that led to the outcome or learning progress. It’s not just effort, but strategy.”

Giving feedback that encourages a growth mindset is important, as mindset may be a determinant of children’s academic development. One American study demonstrated that, among 7th graders, the belief that intelligence was malleable predicted an upward trajectory in school grades. Conversely, the belief that intellect was fixed was associated with a flat trajectory. Crucially, intervention is possible. Among a sample of academically low-performing 7th graders, teaching growth mindset principles promoted a positive change in motivation and reversed downward trajectories in academic results.

Increasingly, research suggests that many of the beliefs that people with a fixed mindset hold are untrue. From intellect to personality, human brains are proving to be more plastic than previously thought. Skills and expertise are not inborn gifts but rather the result of consistent effort. The philosophy of growth mindset teaches such principles. Both secondary and tertiary institutions are increasingly recognising the benefits of fostering healthy mindsets among students, and have begun incorporating the teaching of resilience and wellbeing practices.

Professor Jill Klein, social psychologist at the University of Melbourne Medical and Business Schools, believes mindset is a key determinant of academic performance. Beyond improving grades, Klein teaches that mindset is crucial in determining wellbeing as it shapes the meaning individuals give their failures. These meanings are assigned through a process known as appraisal. Healthy appraisals are key in developing resilience in the face of stressors. In response to an adverse event, appraisal consists of determining both why the event occurred and what the event means. Broadly, obstacles may be interpreted as either an interesting challenge, or as a threat to worth and identity. Healthy esteem and a growth mindset allow for healthy appraisals that result in both increased performance and improved wellbeing.

 
  A growth mindset is important for wellbeing as well as academic performance.   Global Partnership for Education – GPR/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A growth mindset is important for wellbeing as well as academic performance. Global Partnership for Education – GPR/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

In her role speaking to tertiary students, Klein explains that individuals who make unhealthy attributions are more likely to exclusively blame external factors and describe personal failures as the fault of others. Alternatively, they may make global negative and permanent self-appraisals, such as blaming themselves for everything and deciding they’re worthless. Klein describes a healthy approach to failure as the ability to “identify specific actions and behaviours that allow you to take some responsibility but to see the adversity as something very temporary”. This approach means the individual is more likely to engage in activities that grow their skills, while the opposite is true if obstacles are always viewed as threats.

Unsurprisingly, the consequences of unhealthy appraisals extend beyond poor performance, having serious mental health implications. The claim that fixed mindset is directly and even causally linked with poor mental health is supported by robust evidence. A meta analysis by Harvard University researchers, containing a total of seventeen studies and more than 6500 children and adolescents, reported a significant correlation between fixed mindset beliefs and an increased likelihood of more severe mental health problems. The correlation was not mediated by intelligence, personality or quality of peer connectedness.

Believing their work to be a direct reflection of fixed ability, those with fixed mindsets often demonstrate a tendency to experience criticism of their work as if it were a personal attack. When their performance is graded poorly, they may feel personally affronted. They are vulnerable to experiencing depressive cognitions such as “I failed. Therefore, I’m a failure, and I will always be a failure.” Change or challenge is often met with fear. Perceiving their ability as fixed, they worry they will be confronted with their own shortcomings, or that others will uncover a humiliating personal inadequacy. Unsurprisingly, the belief that traits are fixed is correlated with a reluctance to engage with, or even enjoy, personal or academic challenges.

 
  Praising the effort that led to progress or achievement can foster a growth mindset.   Nathan Russell/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Praising the effort that led to progress or achievement can foster a growth mindset. Nathan Russell/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

As with academic performance, intervention in mental wellbeing is possible: research shows that teaching growth mindset principles improves mental health outcomes. In one study, participants demonstrated increased levels of resilience as well as a decline in depression, anxiety and behavioural problems. Intervention need not be extreme or onerous to be effective. Even short, single session interventions have shown promise in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety amongst high-risk adolescents.

As well as ameliorating psychopathology, growth mindset education has been shown to improve psychological wellbeing. In a study of 1260 primary and middle-school aged children, growth mindset principles were significantly correlated with higher levels of wellbeing. Wellbeing was measured using an eight item scale which included measures of feelings of purpose, social relationships, engagement, competency, respect and optimism. Researchers also measured levels of resilience. Interestingly, through the use of a series of statistical models, the researchers hypothesised that growth mindset improved wellbeing through enhancement of resilience.  

Healthy self-esteem is a key determinant of success and wellbeing. However, having high self-esteem is not as easy as declaring “I love me!”  Rather, confidence in one’s competence and right to happiness must grow through consistent effort and reflect a realistic relationship with one’s achievements. The growth mindset approach reflects a willingness to take on feedback and a desire to improve, both in social and occupational pursuits. Parents and educators alike must be discouraged from providing a plethora of unconditional praise. Instead, by praising the effortful process of learning, adults can help foster resilience in children whose trajectories may amaze the generation that raised them.  

Edited by Ena Music