I want my four-year-old to grow up confident – so I won’t stint on praising her

Will I cheer everything she does? No. But I will give her plenty of encouragement

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I haven’t been a great listener to all the advice inflicted on new parents. So-called parenting bibles whose attempts to apply a magical formula to everyday life go against every one of my basic instincts as a mother. My four-year-old daughter has dreamt up her own rule for how many biscuits she is allowed – “Three is piggy, two isn’t” – which I don’t always apply. But my own, very loose, approach is to tell her off when she does something wrong and reward her with praise when she does something well. What’s wrong with that?

A great deal, if the warnings of a joint Dutch-US study published this week are anything to go by. The scientific paper claims that giving children too much praise turns them into narcissists with low self-esteem. Instead of telling our children that they are special, we should say they are as good as anyone else, according to the researchers, who studied 565 Dutch children aged seven to 11, and their parents. It was found that parents who “over-value” their offspring and tell their children they’re special risk them growing up to have an inflated view of themselves. Simply telling a child he or she is loved means they will go on to be confident and well-rounded.

I realise that a scientific study such as this one is more robust than a parenting bible, but both risk applying rigid conclusions to individual children aged four, seven or even 11 – like those in the study – whose potential hasn’t yet been revealed.

My own daughter is in her first year at school and, as a summer-born child, needed a lot of encouragement to keep up with her classmates in reading and writing. At bedtime the other night, she read the word “naughty” correctly in a book, entirely independently. To me, this was an achievement worthy of effusive praise. (I should also praise her excellent teacher for teaching her phonics.)

I don’t use this example to boast about my daughter’s reading skills, but to say I refuse to feel guilty or embarrassed about lavishing praise on her. Does this mean I will cheer every scribble she draws or clap even if she drops a ball when playing catch? No. But I will give her plenty of positive reinforcement and encouragement as she grows up.

I am more determined to do this because she is a girl. There is a widespread assumption that, throughout school, girls become fearful of putting up their hands in class or do not believe they can do subjects like science, maths or technology – and now I have witnessed this tendency in my own daughter. Last week, she was at a sports club and in a group of children where she was the only girl. The coach asked a simple question to which she knew the answer, but I watched as her arm remained by her side while all the boys put up their hands.

Then there are the times when she has been told by boys her own age that she can’t join in a game because she is a girl. If I don’t tell her now, at four, that there’s nothing she can’t do, or that, say, her kicking a football wide of a goal is nevertheless a good attempt, what will things be like when she’s 14? Can it be she is already stepping back rather than, in the words of Facebook chief Sheryl Sandberg, leaning in? So the more praise I can give her – particularly where she feels less confident – the better equipped she will be for the world.

This is not just about my daughter (that really would be narcissistic) but there is a wider point about society. When I was at a comprehensive school in the 1980s and early 1990s, there was a culture of shying away from talent. Mediocrity ruled, “specialness” was not allowed. Contrast that with the experience of my friend who went to a top girls’ day school at the same time, where the ethos was: “You can be anything you want to be.” I believe this contrast between the state and private sectors is less stark today, but telling children that they are merely as good as everyone else is depressingly anti-aspirational.

There is also something rather British in fighting shy of effusive praise. I prefer the go-getting attitude of the US. After all, they have the world’s largest economy and nearly always head the Olympic medals table. Americans are so renowned for being over the top that three years ago David McCullough, an English teacher, told graduating students in Boston, Massachusetts, that none of them was special. He was fed up with seeing overly praised, cosseted pupils thinking they were better than they really were. But I think we British could do with being a bit more American.

The answer must be not to lump every child into a mass of mediocrity but to tease out each individual’s special abilities and talents. No child should be left behind, of course, but nor should they be held back from aiming high in case it risks turning them into arrogant adults. I am not ashamed to say it, but I am a pushy parent.