High Marks For Fair Praise

A pat on the head may be most effective when it's well earned.

By Kirsi Goldynia, published May 2, 2017 - last reviewed on September 27, 2017

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It's no secret that positive feedback on a child's performance in school can have an impact on both her well-being and her report card. But is it better for parents to praise children generously or honestly? 

Researchers recently asked more than 300 students at South Korean elementary schools, as well as their parents, to rate how much the parents typically understated or overstated their school-related praise. They found that children who perceived their parents' praise as accurately reflecting their performance or as slightly overstated—and whose parents perceived their praise as accurate—tended to have a higher GPA and to report lower levels of depression symptoms than students who received too little acknowledgment or an excessive dose of it.

Psychologist Young-Hoon Kim of Yonsei University, a co-author of the study, says that American and South Korean parents share a tendency to overpraise their children. Although no causal link between overpraise and other outcomes was established in this study, a 2014 paper suggests that for children with low self-esteem, inflated praise can backfire, making them less likely to embrace challenges.

The many contradictory opinions about the best way to support a child "put parents in a difficult situation," says Kou Murayama, a psychologist at the University of Reading. These findings, he says, suggest parents could afford to be more straightforward in their encouragement.