Eddie Brummelman is a developmental psychology researcher at the University of Amsterdam. Eddie studies how childhood experiences shape the developing self. He is driven by a desire to understand and address achievement inequalities between disadvantaged children and their peers. Annie Brookman-Byrne talks with Eddie about how self-views can perpetuate themselves, and how praise can backfire.
Annie Brookman-Byrne: What is your lab, KiDLAB, discovering about the origins, nature, and consequences of children’s developing self-views?
Eddie Brummelman: The ability to conceive of ourselves is what separates us from other animals. This ability emerges early: From their youngest years, children form views of themselves, their abilities, and their overall worth as a person. These self-views have profound consequences. When self-views are robust and grounded in reality, they help children flourish. But when they are fragile and detached from reality, they can prevent children from reaching their full potential.
“When self-views are robust and grounded in reality, they help children flourish.”
I have become fascinated by the problem of achievement inequality: Why do children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds underperform in school, even when they are just as talented as—or even more talented than—their peers? Why do these children often have unrealistically negative views of themselves and their abilities? How do these self-views, over time, undercut their academic achievement? And how can we create environments in which all children can develop positive self-views and succeed? To address these questions, we have ventured into different disciplines, combining insights from developmental psychology, social psychology, educational science, and sociology. I see a critical role for children’s self-views in achievement inequality. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds often receive denigrating messages about their potential, which can become ingrained in their self-views and undermine their achievement.
My students and I are finding that many of these messages are well-intentioned. For example, when two students succeed in class, teachers are more likely to lavish the disadvantaged student with inflated praise—such as “You did incredibly well!”—because they assume the student had to work harder to achieve the same success. But students pick up on this message. They infer that the student who was lavished with inflated praise is more hardworking but less smart. These well-intentioned messages may inadvertently undermine a disadvantaged student’s sense of competence. The student’s negative self-view may, in turn, perpetuate achievement inequality.
ABB: How did you become interested in developmental psychology and children’s self-views?
EB: As an adolescent, I was intrigued by psychoanalysis. I was struck by the idea that childhood experiences, even seemingly benign ones, can form children’s self-views and thus perpetuate themselves over time.
Rather than becoming a psychoanalyst treating patients, I decided to become a scientist studying the development of children. I wondered: How do childhood experiences shape children’s developing self-views? I studied 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 became fascinated by narcissism. Narcissistic children feel superior to others, have a sense of entitlement, and crave attention and approval. We discovered that narcissism can be exacerbated by parental overvaluation: Some parents see their children as more special and more entitled than other children, and overestimate, overclaim, and overpraise their children’s good qualities. Over time, children internalize these messages to form unrealistically positive but fragile self-views.
“We discovered that inflated praise frequently backfires.”
I also became intrigued by low self-esteem. Children with low self-esteem feel down about themselves and are at increased risk of anxiety and depression. A common belief is that low self-esteem can be cured through praise. Teachers, parents, and other caregivers often believe that children need praise—especially inflated praise—to feel good about themselves. We discovered that inflated praise frequently backfires. When children are told that they have done incredibly well, they think they are expected to do equally well all the time. This leads them to avoid challenges, to explore less, and to develop lower self-esteem.
ABB: How will your research help children who may develop negative self-views?
EB: As my own research has progressed, I have become eager to use what we have learned about children’s self-view development to help solve the problems facing society. Social problems, such as growing inequality, disproportionally impact younger generations. Developmental psychologists are uniquely positioned to examine the consequences of these problems for child development and to generate novel solutions. I am reminded of the words of a mentor: “Journal articles are filled with complete answers to small questions rather than incomplete, but promising, answers to big questions.” If we want to answer big questions, such as how to reduce inequality, we need to venture into the unknown, open to whatever promising answers our research will reveal.
As a first-generation university student, I’ve experienced how educational settings can create unfair advantages for some students over others. I am committed to using developmental science to create equal opportunities and fairer societies. 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. Of course, such interventions should not be aimed exclusively at children. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds should not be made to feel responsible for their predicament. In fact, they are embedded in a society that undercuts their self-views. By aiming interventions at teachers, classrooms, schools, and even societal structures, we can help create environments in which all children can flourish, regardless of whether they were born into poverty or affluence.
“I am committed to using developmental science to create equal opportunities and fairer societies.”
ABB: What’s the most important personal lesson you’ve taken from your work?
EB: I have become more compassionate, especially toward failure. The strongest predictor of children’s success in school is not their merit—how smart they are or how hard they work—but whether they were born into a wealthy and well-educated family. We often think that classrooms create equal opportunities by providing a group of children with the same teacher and the same materials. But that hides the unequal opportunities that children have had from birth. Failure often reflects a lack of opportunity, not a lack of ability or motivation.
ABB: What are you pursuing next?
EB: I am excited to gain a better understanding of how children pick up abstract societal ideas. For example, there are pervasive negative stereotypes about the academic abilities of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and little is known about the origins and consequences of those stereotypes. I want to know how they develop, how they manifest themselves in the classroom, how they become ingrained in children’s self-views, and what can be done to dismantle them.
Eddie Brummelman is an Associate Professor at the University of Amsterdam, a Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow 2021-2023, and a board member of The Young Academy (De Jonge Akademie) of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).
Brummelman’s work is situated at the intersection of developmental psychology and educational science. He studies the developing self: how children develop self-views, how these self-views shape mental health and educational outcomes, and how interventions that target self-views can help at-risk children flourish. Brummelman is committed to using basic science to address social problems, such as the growing problem of inequality in education.
This interview has been edited for clarity.