“You’re So Smart” And Other Compliments That Might Backfire

"You're great," "You're the best," or "You're so pretty" all seem like key compliments to give a child. But our tendency to over praise may be doing more harm than good.

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The self-esteem movement exploded in the ‘80s, leading parents and teachers to heap praise upon students and avoid doing anything that would make them feel bad. Some schools even stopped using red pens in classrooms, so kids feelings wouldn’t be hurt by a teacher’s corrections. (Seeing an “F” at the top of a paper in black seems just as bad as seeing it in red, but who knows.) In May 2017, New York Magazine reported that the studies on the importance of self-esteem were, unfortunately, incredibly overblown. For years, parents have been taught that they must nurture and build up a child’s self-esteem through their entire life. Yet, The Washington Post reported on a study that found that by age 5, a child’s self-esteem is pretty much fully developed. Though it can change over time, a kid’s sense of self worth is already in place by kindergarten, so why are we constantly propping it up during the rest of their education?

Empty praising feels like an unearned reward to kids.

After thirty-some years of self-esteem obsession, have we gone too far? It turns out that some compliments and praise might do more harm than good. Here, we’ll explore some compliments to avoid, why over adulation can cause problems, and other ways to show love and support.

“You’re smart.”

Telling a child that they’re smart sounds like the best kind of compliment. How could a child’s confidence in their own intelligence go wrong? Well, when children learn that intelligence is a given quality rather than something that can be cultivated, that causes problems.

Praising a child for simply being something is not an effective way to cultivate learning and motivation

In a study from Psychological Science, students who were told they were smart were found more likely to cheat on a game. How could that be? Well, students praised for simply “being smart” weren’t inclined to try to figure things out and solve problems. So, when the game in the study got hard, the “smart” students decided to cheat. The endorsement of “you’re smart” made the children both less motivated to learn and increased the need to live up to their “smart” moniker. On the other hand, students who were praised for their performance were motivated to work hard, continue to learn, and were much less likely to cheat. Now, this was a study of only 300 children, so it’s not to say that one “you’re smart” compliment will send your child on a road to laziness and cheating. It simply proves that praising a child for simply being something is not an effective way to cultivate learning and motivation. Instead of saying “you’re smart,” compliment a child’s performance. “You worked so hard” reinforces the idea that hard work is something to be desired and makes the child want to continue that positive behavior.

“You’re great.”

When you really think about it, “you’re great,” doesn’t mean much. It’s not specific and often it’s a compliment given to try to boost a child’s (or adult’s for that matter) already low self-esteem.

Giving out blanket compliments just doesn’t help.

The American Psychological Association reported on a study that found children with low self-esteem were given twice as many compliments based on personal qualities. So, despite hearing things like “you’re great” or “you’re a great artist,” the children still felt low self worth. In that study, children were either told “you’re great,” “you did a great job,” or given no praise at all. The participants took a test to find their baseline self-esteem, then played a few games. The students who were praised for their work (“you did a great job”) had the same self-esteem whether or not they won or lost the games. But the children who were told “you’re great” felt an increase in shame any time they lost. The “you’re great” compliment lead children to believe that their “greatness” was tied to success and if they didn’t continually succeed, all their worth would be gone. Those results sound fairly dramatic for a simple compliment, but it reinforces the idea that giving out blanket compliments just doesn’t help. It’s easy to say “you’re great,” without fully engaging with your child. According to Dr. Fran Walfish, author of The Self-Aware Parent, “Always be specific and genuine in your tone of voice.” Exactly what you say doesn’t matter if you’re being genuine. Compliment your child’s actions (“you did a great job”) with an authentic tone and your child will appreciate your love and support and not feel like their self worth is conditional in any way.

“You’re the best.”

Over-praising comes from good intentions, but sadly has poor consequences. In 2014, HuffPost reported on a study that found adults have a tendency to over-praise. And when a child already had low self-esteem, they typically got twice as many exaggerated compliments. Unfortunately, the children’s self-esteem never improved, no matter how many times they were told “you’re the best.”

You don’t need to praise every little thing they do.

Even as kids, we can tell when praise is genuine or inflated. Take a second and think about something you’re not confident about. Then, if someone came up and said “you’re the greatest” in that area, would you feel any better? Probably not. You’d probably think the person was just trying to make you feel better and your self-esteem would remain the same. Kids feel the same way. When compliments are exaggerated, it only makes them feel more insecure. Aricia E. Shaffer, parenting instructor and coach, warns against over praise: “Empty praising feels like an unearned reward to kids. At worst, children feel like their parents are lying to them and it’s hard to believe them in other matters.” Instead, be genuine. When your child does something that truly impresses you, let them know with enthusiasm. You don’t need to praise every little thing they do, but feel free to give feedback when you know your child has worked hard or is proud of their accomplishments. Again, if “you’re the best” has slipped out of your mouth a time or two, your child won’t be scarred for life. But, in the future, look to give the most specific and genuine compliment that you can.

“You’re so talented.”

Just like saying “you’re so smart,” saying “you’re so talented” can reduce a child’s work ethic. If they’re naturally so “talented,” why would they want to work hard to get better? That’s not to say that your children aren’t talented; it’s just that saying that they are doesn’t help your child learn and grow.

Reward your child’s natural talents in a way that helps them nurture and grow those abilities.

Instead, aim to cultivate your child’s natural talents and abilities. Lisa Sansom, consultant with a Master’s thesis on confident parenting, says, “It’s also about recognizing your child’s strengths and building on those. We’re talking about character strengths here, not necessarily skills and abilities, like running quickly.” Instead, Sansom says to consider, “Is your child funny? That’s the character strength of humor. Is your child kind? Curious? Socially aware? Self-aware? These are all strengths and when your child exhibits them, recognize them and label those strengths and complement your child on using those strengths, especially in times of difficulty and problem solving.” This way, you get to reward your child’s natural talents in a way that helps them nurture and grow those abilities. Sometimes, instead of going to a blanket compliment to make a child feel better, try to engage your child more deeply. Helping them recognize their own strengths and learn how they can use those strengths to the best of their abilities will help your child in the long run. “You’re so talented” might make them feel good for a moment, but ultimately hinders their ability to grow.

“You were good today.”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to reward children for good behavior. Anyone with little kids knows that a quiet trip to the grocery store can be hard to come by and you might want to reward your kid with riches for finally behaving. Reinforcing good behavior is fine, but over-praising it will eventually hurt more than help.

Their levels of self-esteem fluctuate depending on success or failure.

In Psychology Today, the author warned against praising your child for simple actions. “By dishing out praise to a child for doing things she should be doing anyway, we teach her that she gets rewarded just for being.” A child can begin to rely on parental praise for all of their self-esteem. If a compliment becomes the norm, then when the child is eventually not complimented for a simple task, they’ll feel they did something wrong. As they get older, children will look to peers, teachers, and others for constant validation and their self-esteem becomes completely dependant on what others think of them. A study from Erasmus University Rotterdam, labeled this as contingent self-esteem. “People with contingent self-esteem are preoccupied by their performance and by evaluations of others,” the study says. “Their levels of self-esteem fluctuate depending on success or failure. Contingent self-esteem also reflects fragile self-esteem: people with contingent self-esteem continuously have to be successful in order to feel good about themselves.” Without any inner sense of worth, children with contingent self-esteem feel pressure to constantly succeed. Since no one succeeds all the time, these children are set up for dramatic drops in self worth. It’s not healthy for anyone to base their entire self-esteem on outward success or the approval of others. Though most of us struggle with this to some degree, you can keep your child self-sufficient and give them a healthy sense of inner self-esteem by simply cutting back on unnecessary praise. So, there’s nothing wrong with saying “Thank you for being quiet in the car today” or “Thank you for being good on our trip to the grocery store.” That helps reinforce the good behavior. But you don’t need to sing their praises or reward your child for simply doing what they’re told. Save your compliments for big moments; you and your family will be all the better for it.

“You’re so pretty.”

Seeing a little girl in a cute dress, you almost can’t help but say “You’re so pretty!” But, complimenting a girl only on her looks can set up a problematic precedent.

As long as there’s a balance, your daughter will feel good about herself inside and out.

According to HuffPost, nearly 18 percent of girls under 12 wear makeup and eating disorders are on the rise. At a young age, girls get the idea that prettiness is their most important asset and many girls go to great and sometimes harmful lengths to live up to those ideals of beauty. Saying “You’re so pretty” can reinforce the idea that pretty is all that matters. Now, parents are not the only reason that eating disorders are on the rise. No parent who calls their daughter “beautiful” means to set up a double standard for women across the nation. But even if a girl’s family never mentioned beauty once, she’d still see that beauty is heavily rewarded. From beautiful models on magazines to shows devoted to talking about celebrity fashion to pages and pages committed to getting that “beach body,” every girl gets the message that beauty is the most highly rewarded quality for women. And when we live in a world where a 22-year-old model will always get more attention than a Nobel Prize–winning scientist, a girl could be very hurt if she’s never told she’s pretty. The key with daughters is that they shouldn’t be praised only for their looks. Schaffer says, “Providing no compliments/praise to children leaves them feeling like they can’t do anything to get their parent’s attention or approval and misbehavior or apathy may follow.” So, feel free to tell a girl she’s pretty. Just make sure you also reward her hard work at school or her athletic strengths too. As long as there’s a balance, your daughter will feel good about herself inside and out.

The Best Way To Compliment

All these do’s and don’ts can make parenting seem even harder than it already is. This guide is not meant to be a hard list, but instead as a guide to reinforce the idea that constant compliments aren’t necessary and that specific praise tends to engender better behavior in the long run.

Kids learn from what you do far more than what you say.

If you say “you’re great” or “you’re so beautiful,” it’s not the end of the world. If your heart is overflowing with the belief that your child is the best, go ahead and say it. Just don’t go overboard with hyperbolic compliments. A little goes a long way. Sansom sums up her parental advice: “Mostly, it’s important to love your child through hugs and cuddles and to be there, with great empathy, when things are not going well. The best parents are role models for love and kindness—kids learn from what you do far more than what you say.” If you model hard work, love, kindness, and strength, your child will learn those traits no matter what you say. Connect with your child. The look in your eyes says more than any word ever could.

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