We all have lots to thank our mothers for today. Self-confidence is near the top of the list being one of the greatest assets parents (and other significant adults) can nurture in a child. We know its value and we enjoy the smiles that typically result from immediate praise. Balancing praise, however, is one of the great challenges of a leader/manager, coach, parent can face. Too much praise, with ribbons for coming in 10th, and it becomes diluted. The praise becomes ineffective like an over-prescribed anti-biotic. Either the person sees right through the pedestrian nature of the praise, or else they are set up for a bigger fall later in life. Of course, too little can also result in frustration and exasperation.

Sian Griffiths explores this dynamic in her Sunday Times piece “Praise her see her fail” (paywalled)

  • “’Admiring our children may temporarily lift our sense of self-esteem but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self,’ he says. ‘Empty praise is as bad as thoughtless criticism — it expresses indifference to the child’s feelings and thoughts.’ It is the chapter ‘How praise can cause a loss of confidence’ that has been seized on by the chattering classes, for whom praising one’s children is as natural as putting them down for swimming or music lessons. In The Examined Life, Grosz cites research by the psychologists Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller, who, as part of an experiment, asked 128 children to solve maths problems. On completing the first set of questions, some children were told, ‘You did really well — you’re so clever’; the others, ‘You did really well — you must have tried really hard.’ Both sets of children were then given more difficult maths problems. Those who had been praised for their efforts solved more problems and worried less about failing than those who had been told that they were clever. Even worse, when asked by the researchers to describe the experiment, some of the “clever’ children lied about the results: they exaggerated their own scores. ‘All it took to knock these youngsters’ confidence, to make them so unhappy that they lied, was one sentence of praise,’ writes Grosz. They felt they had to live up to the erroneously inflated opinion others seemed to have of them…When his daughter was two, Grosz and his wife, Nicola, listened to their babysitter lauding their child ‘for how she took the wrapping off a cupcake. My wife and I looked at each other, like: ‘This is insane.’ Why would someone go on a kind of babble of: ‘Oh, that’s so great — you took that wrapper off so beautifully’?’”

The undertone here is of course an embrace of failure. Letting go of the excess praise, empty victories and shallow successes in favour of richer development and growth over the long term.