The Right (and the Wrong) Way to Praise Kids

nick magnifyer

Want to increase your child’s self-esteem? Make her more resilient and willing to face challenges?
Stop praising her. That’s right, stop the atta-girl, you are so smart and strong.

An intriguing longitudinal study on parent praise by Carol Dweck, a Harvard researcher, shows that too much positive feedback can backfire and hijack the very attributes we are after for our children. Dweck divides parent praise into person-based (“You are a fast runner!”), and process based (“Look at you go!”). A crucial difference. In person-based praise the focus is on performance, while process-based praise is focused on the effort of the child.

One piece of Dweck’s study gave 400 fifth-graders an easy test working with puzzles. When a child finished the test, they were randomly grouped and given a single line of praise, either person-based (“You must be smart at this”), or effort-based (“You must have worked really hard”).

danno homeworkThe next test given to all the kids was difficult enough that failure was assured by all, but the two groups diverged strikingly. Those praised for their effort figured they simply hadn’t tried hard enough and were willing to try again. Those who received the performance-based praise assumed they weren’t smart at all. Next, all the kids were given a final test, as easy as the first, and here is the intriguing part: the effort praised kids significantly improved over their first test score by 30%, the performance based kids? They did worse—by about 20%.

The statistics boil down to this: effort is a controllable thing—we choose how much we want to try. Intelligence, on the other hand, is perceived as fixed, Why bother?, I am going to fail anyway. Here you have one group of kids willing to throw hard work at a task, and the other group who gave up—all with the flip of a praise switch.

Feedback is a delicate thing. We all want to be visible in the world, our effort acknowledged, but the reality is all feedback—good, bad, or indifferent– is judgment, and judgment is a creativity and motivation killer. When learning a new skill most people want to work solo before sharing it. When someone, usually better at it than you, steps in mid-process and exclaims how wonderful that painting, knitted cap, ukelele playing is, when you KNOW it is discordant, it feels false, the feedback phony. Instead think how effort-based praise feels:
look up“You didn’t give up,”
“You love to play with color,”
“You found the answer,”
and the one I love best: “Look at you go!”

The trouble with excessive praise is kids become addicted. They want it, need it, have to have it in order to try something new, or to face a challenge. We cultivate the addiction as parents when we mindlessly evaluate a child’s moves and efforts with a stream of unthinking verbal applause, because that is what we have been taught: praise them and it will manifest.

The reality is, when we leave a child alone with their quirky interests and passions, their struggle with mastering a new skill, joy–simply for the doing or the learning of it–blooms.

What’s a parent to do? Think process not product. Make it your litmus test. Is this praise on effort, or attributes and goals? And when in doubt, go for benign neglect, let them sway and play by themselves and find your own quirky passion.nick floating
And I will say to you, to all of us working hard at being good parents– Look at you go!


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