The developmental psychologist exploring profound consequences of children’s self-views

Eddie Brummelman, a developmental psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, studies how childhood experiences shape our self-development. Eddie Brummelman learns the way childhood experiences influence the development of self. Eddie is motivated by the desire to understand and reduce achievement gaps between the disadvantaged and their peers. Annie Brookman Byrne speaks with Eddie about the way in which self-perceptions can be perpetuated, and praise can have a negative effect.

Annie Brookman Byrne: What are you discovering about children’s self-views and their origins?

Eddie Brummelman says that the ability to imagine ourselves is what sets us apart from other animals. The ability to conceive of ourselves is something that children develop very early. These self-views can have profound effects. When children’s self-views are grounded in reality and robust, they can help them flourish. When they are fragile and disconnected from reality, they can stop children from reaching their potential.

When children’s self-perceptions are grounded in reality and robust, they can flourish.

I am fascinated by the issue of achievement inequality. Why do children who come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds perform worse in school than their peers despite being just as talented or even more talented? Why do children from underprivileged backgrounds have unrealistically low views of their abilities and themselves? Over time, how do these negative self-views affect their academic performance? How can we create an environment where all children are able to develop positive self-views and achieve success? In order to answer these questions, we combined insights from developmental psychology with social psychology, educational sciences, and sociology. In my view, children’s self-views play a crucial role in determining achievement inequality. Children with disadvantaged backgrounds are often subjected to demeaning messages about their abilities, which can be ingrained into their self-view and hinder their achievement.

Many of these messages have good intentions, and my students and I agree. Teachers are more likely than not to praise the less-successful student for their efforts, such as saying, “You did !”– because they believe the student has to work harder in order to achieve success. Students pick up this message. Students infer the student who received inflated praise as being more intelligent but also hardworking. These messages, while well-intended, may unintentionally undermine the sense of competence in disadvantaged students. This negative self-view can perpetuate the achievement gap.

Raising children’s self-esteem: A delicate art

ABB: What made you interested in development psychology and children’s views of themselves?

As a teenager, I was fascinated by psychoanalysis. I was intrigued by the idea of how childhood experiences can shape children’s views of themselves, even if they seem benign.

Instead of becoming a psychologist who treats patients, I chose to study the development of children. I asked myself: How does childhood experience shape children’s self-perceptions as they grow up? I learned this question using a variety of methods–observations, laboratory experiments, field experiments, daily diary studies, assessments of physiological responses (such as blushing), and long-term studies that follow children over time.

I was fascinated by narcissism. Narcissistic kids are superior, feel entitled, and want attention and approval. Overvaluation by parents can exacerbate narcissism: some parents view their children as special and qualified, and they overestimate and praise their good qualities. Children internalize the messages and develop unrealistically positive but fragile self-images.

We found that exaggerated praise often backfires.

Low self-esteem also caught my attention. Low self-esteem can make children feel bad about themselves and increase their risk for anxiety and depression. It is a common belief that praise can cure low self-esteem. Teachers, parents, and other caregivers believe that distinction, especially inflated honor, is necessary for children to feel good about themselves. Excessive praise often backfires. Children who are told they did a great job will think that they should do the same thing all the time. They avoid challenges, explore less, and develop lower self-esteem.

ABB: What will you learn from your research?

EB: My research progressed, and I became more eager to apply what we learned about the development of children’s self-image to solve problems in society. Social issues such as increasing inequality have a disproportionate impact on younger generations. Developmental psychologists have a unique position to look at the effects of these issues on child development and come up with novel solutions. The words of my mentor come to mind: “Journal article are full of complete answers to small problems, rather than incomplete but promising answers to large questions.”

As a student of the first generation, I have seen how certain educational settings can give unfair advantages to some students. I am dedicated to using development science to create fair societies and equal opportunities. One of my aims is to develop interventions that cultivate healthy self-views–self-views that help children embrace challenges, persist in the face of struggle, and bounce back from failure. These interventions are not aimed at only children. It is not fair to make children from disadvantaged backgrounds feel responsible for the situation they are in. They are embedded in a culture that undermines their self-esteem. We can create an environment where all children can thrive, whether they are born into poverty, affluence, or even the best of circumstances.

I am committed to using development science to create fairness and equal opportunities in society.

ABB: What is the most important lesson you have learned from your work?

I am more compassionate towards failure, in particular. The most important predictor for a child’s school success is not how smart or hardworking they are but whether they come from a well-educated and wealthy family. Many people believe that classrooms provide equal opportunities for all children by having the same teacher with the same materials. This is a way to hide the fact that some children were born with unequal chances. Lack of opportunity is often the cause of failure, not lack of motivation or ability.

ABB: Which of the following will you pursue next?

EB: It is exciting to learn more about how children absorb abstract social ideas. Many negative stereotypes surround the academic ability of children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Little is known about their origins or consequences. I’m interested in how stereotypes are formed, how they appear in the classroom, and how they affect children’s self-perceptions.


Eddie Brummelman Is an Associate Professor at The University of Amsterdam. He is a Jacobs Foundation Fellow for 2021-2023 and a member of The Young Academy of The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Brummelman’s work lies at the intersection between developmental psychology and education science. He is interested in the development of self-views: how they shape children’s mental health and education outcomes and how interventions that focus on self-views help at-risk kids flourish. Brummelman’s goal is to use basic science to solve social problems, such as the increasing problem of inequalities in education.

This interview has been edited to make it clearer.


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