Main content start

Visiting Scholar Eddie Brummelman Presents “The Praise Paradox: How Well-Intended Words Can Backfire”

By Raquel Ryan, Teacher

Have you ever wondered about the influence of praise on children’s self-esteem? Would you be surprised to know that some praise could be contributing to narcissistic qualities in children instead of encouraging higher self-esteem? In a nuanced and captivating talk during our staff development day in February, developmental psychologist Eddie Brummelman illuminated the differences between narcissism and self-esteem and explained how well-meaning parents might be encouraging narcissism by lavishing their children with praise. Brummelman has a doctorate in developmental psychology from Utrecht University and was a Marie Skodowska-Curie Fellow at Stanford during the 2016–2017 academic year.
Brummelman opened his talk by describing the self-esteem movement and current attitudes about narcissism, particularly in young people. The self-esteem movement, which came about in the 1970s, is a paradigm in parenting that declares high self-esteem as the core of a child’s ability to do well in life. In Parenting for Dummies, praise is described as doing for self-esteem what water and fertilizer do for a growing plant. According to a recent survey that Brummelman and his colleague conducted in the Netherlands, 87 percent of parents agreed that children need praise to feel good about themselves. As the self-esteem movement grew from the late 1980s to 2006, narcissism levels in US college students were found to have risen dramatically, prompting some psychologists to declare a “narcissism epidemic.” Brummelman, however, does not use the word “epidemic” himself, because narcissism is not a disease: it is a trait that can be changed.
Narcissists believe that they are superior, explained Brummelman, while those with high self-esteem believe that they are worthy. People with high self-esteem are often happy and do not equate their success to their self-worth. On the other hand, narcissists may be unhappy while still maintaining that they are better than others. Narcissistic qualities first start appearing around the age of 7—for example, when a child thinks: “I am better than others”—and they become fully formed during the teenage years. In the classroom, narcissists want to be seen as exceptionally competent, are extrinsically motivated and respond defensively to feedback. Additionally, they will often set themselves up for failure so they’ll have an excuse for falling short of expectations. Narcissists can negatively affect people around them as well, taking credit for group successes or bullying those they perceive as a threat.
Brummelman then dove into possible explanations for increased narcissism in children. He presented two psychological theories that could be applied—the psychoanalytic theory and the social learning theory. The psychoanalytic theory describes narcissism as a defense mechanism: when parents are especially cold, children will seek attention and approval from everyone else. In Brummelman’s research and beyond, this theory has found little support. The social learning theory posits that narcissism is internalized by children whose parents believe that their child is better than other children. This phenomenon is referred to as overvaluation—where parents ascribe every perfection to their child and conceal or forget any shortcomings. Brummelman’s research focused on this theory and how it could relate to increasing rates of narcissism in children. 
Brummelman developed the Parental Overvaluation Scale, a questionnaire to determine if parents were overvaluing their children. One study involved parents looking at a long list of historical events, historical figures, world geography and literature, and marking the ones they believed their children knew about. The parents who overvalued their child were found to believe that their children knew about things that didn’t even exist! In another study, Brummelman discovered that overvaluing parents lavished their children with praise: They praised their children about 62 percent more often than other parents did. In other research, he found that 25 percent of all praise could be classified as inflated praise, which sounds like “You did incredibly well!” instead of “You did well!” When children are lavished with inflated praise, they may develop a sense of grandiosity: they may infer that they are incredible.
The last portion of Brummelman’s presentation focused on the relationships between overvaluation and narcissism and between warmth and self-esteem. Brummelman found that children who were overvalued by their parents developed higher narcissism levels. This is in line with the social learning theory of narcissism. Perhaps you now find yourself wondering, “How can I support a child’s growing self-esteem?” The answer, said Brummelman, is with warmth. He found that when parents display love, affection, interest and shared joy, children develop higher self-esteem rather than narcissism. Thus, parents’ warmth helps cultivate a healthy sense of worth in their children. Brummelman conducted research at Bing this past year to better understand how parents influence children’s self-worth.