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When Research-Based Parenting Techniques Can Backfire

When Research-Based Parenting Techniques Can Backfire

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

We live in a world where information is accessible with the touch of a screen. Blogs, online articles, and tweets, all come armed with tips, tricks, and parenting strategies that you should implement with your children- and a lot of them are research based!

While I think that this wealth of information is great, the problem is that we sometimes tend to approach parenting techniques as ‘one size fits all.’ And like ill-fitting clothes, applying parenting practices without first considering the limitations, capacities, or even the personality of your children is not going to give you the result you ultimately want. In fact, many parenting techniques might even be damaging if they are not used in certain age ranges or contexts.

So to better understand when, how and why certain parenting techniques are beneficial, today’s article covers two of the most prevalent parenting techniques that might backfire if we fail to consider a couple of factors.

Advice #1: Praising children and self-esteem

Back in the 80’s, people began to understand that self-esteem was a large part of raising healthy children. Indeed, good self-esteem is related to academic achievement and overall happiness. Because of this, participation trophies and complimenting children became the thing to do.

However, scientists have since discovered that complimenting children on their characteristics or their talent is not a good thing. One study showed that when parents over-praised their children (for example, “You are the best! Your drawing is amazing!”) children’s self-esteem either worsened or contributed to becoming more self-centered.

Though this might seem counter-intuitive at first, the researchers argued “Rather than raising self‐esteem, however, inflated praise conveys to children that they should continue to meet very high standards. When children are told that they performed incredibly well, they may infer that they should perform incredibly well all the time.”

Scientists have since discovered that complimenting children on their characteristics or their talent is not a good thing

As a parent, you likely believe that your child is the best (because they are) and it is easy to praise them constantly. However, as the research suggests, overpraising children can have negative effects.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Now please hear me when I say that praising can be a great thing! In fact, psychologist Carol Dweck found that praising children for their efforts can improve academic achievement, motivation, and perseverance on a task. In her study, children took an easy test and were then complimented on either their intelligence (“You must be so smart”; Group 1) or their effort (“You must have worked so hard!”; Group 2). Then, they offered children in each of these two groups the option of taking a hard test or an easy test. The researchers found that children who had been complimented for their effort, as opposed to their intelligence, were more likely to choose the harder test, and were also less likely to quit in a difficult task.

These findings suggest that focusing your praise on your child’s determination, perseverance, or focus are great ways to foster these traits, as opposed to focusing your praise on characteristics or a particular outcome.

Advice #2: Give children choices…sometimes

When children come-in to do a study at my laboratory, they get to pick a small price at the end. We have balls, jewelry, coloring books, (basically everything you can find at the dollar store). Something that I have observed, is that giving children choices is a parenting technique that is quite popular. For instance, even moms of 18-month-olds give kids choices “do you want the blue ball or the car?”

Now, I understand the appeal of this parenting technique; giving children choices gives them a sense of ownership and responsibility, all while avoiding potential tantrums. And while I am a fan of this technique, no one told parents that there are contexts and good ages where this technique is most effective.

The purpose of giving a child a choice is that they feel like their opinions matter, and that they can choose for themselves. While giving your child a simple choice seems like an easy task, it actually requires a lot of cognitive ability on their part! For example, when we make choices, we often plan, weigh different options, and consider potential consequences. We take these abilities for granted, because as adults, we do this with ease…. but it takes some time for young children to be able to do all of these!

In this blog, we often talk about the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), because it is the special part of the brain that allows humans to regulate emotions, plan for the future, and inhibit unwanted responses. This part of the brain takes the longest to mature (it is not fully developed until around age 25!) and it prevents young children from being able to engage in important tasks.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

With this in mind, giving children choices when they are very young (less than 2.5 years-old) is not ideal. because they have yet to develop the tools that make this parenting technique effective. Luckily, the prefrontal cortex has gained some ground by the age of 3-4, so giving children choices at this age will achieve more of what parents want, and avoid frustration on both sides.

Summing things Up:

While popular parenting techniques can be helpful, it is particularly important to consider the age of your child AND the context when deciding when to implement parenting techniques. Further, children will respond to techniques very differently, so it is important to try-out a couple to see which technique works best for each of your children. Next time you read or hear about a parenting technique, take some time to ask yourself, “considering my child’s age and personality… is this a good thing to implement right now?”


1. Offer choices to children 3 years and up

2. Praise children’s efforts, not their characteristics

3. Praise children for things that you want them to value (i.e., kindness over appearances).

4. Consider your child’s age and personality traits before you implement a parenting technique.

Works Cited

  1. Brummelman, E., Nelemans, S. A., Thomaes, S., & Orobio de Castro, B. (2017). When parents’praise inflates, children’s self-esteem deflates. Child Development, 88, 1799–1809. doi:10.1111/cdev.12936

  2. Dweck, C. S. (2002). The development of ability conceptions. In A. Wigfield & J. S. Eccles(Eds.), Development of achievement motivation (pp. 57–88). London, UK: Academic Press.

  3. Gunderson, E. A., Gripshover, S. J., Romero, C., Dweck, C. S., Goldin‐Meadow, S., & Levine, S. C. (2013). Parent praise to 1‐to 3‐year‐olds predicts children's motivational frameworks 5 years later. Child development, 84(5), 1526-1541.

  4. Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance. Journal of personality and social psychology, 75(1), 33.

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