I’m sharing some of my favorite posts from the archives while I spend some extra time with my family.
Blanketing children with praise, seems like a natural step toward building independent, confident kids. But praise may actually produce results in our children that are opposite our intentions, according to an article in New York Magazine (How Not To Talk to Your Kids).
According to the article, praising children based on intelligence (“You are so smart!”) implies inherent ability separate from effort or progress. Some of the studies cited in the article found that children who were praised in this manner were more likely to be risk-averse. Seeing their “smartness” as a definition of who they were, a characteristic they had little control over, they had a stronger desire to preserve that image of “smartness”, than to put it to the test with a challenge. They were eager to display competence, rather than to learn something new.
Conversely, children who were encouraged with comments about their effort, their tenacity, or their focus were more likely to recognize the skills that they had put to use and were apt to take on more challenges and apply those skills again.
(*Update to original post: Ellen Galinsky refers to this difference as a fixed mindset vs a growth mindset in Chapter 6 of her book, Mind in the Making.)
The article further examines praise addiction, the interplay of self-esteem and praise,a s well as the efficacy of directly teaching kids to take on challenges in education.
I would strongly recommend the article to parents and teachers, and feel it gives some interesting and applicable research-based information. For those left worried about how to appropriately encourage positive behavior without turning their kids (or themselves) into praise junkies, here are a few guidelines:
Make it specific and sincere. Kids can spot generic, hollow praise. Whenever you catch yourself using a generic form of praise (“Good job!”) think of it as a buzzer, reminding you to add a more specific description (“You really worked at that puzzle and didn’t give up, even when it was hard!”).
Describe an action. Overemphasizing qualities gives children the message that they have little control over this trait. They are either smart or not. They are kind or not. Describing the action helps them know how to repeat the behavior and reinforces the aspect of choice in their behavior. (“Thank you for showing good listening by sitting with your eyes on me, your bodies still, and your mouths quiet.” vs “Thanks for being so good!”) Think less in terms of praise and more in terms of encouragement. What skills and actions do you want to encourage? Describe them with action words. These words act as cues to the child’s brain.
Recognize effort. Focusing too much on the end product becomes judgment rather than encouragement. Recognizing the effort someone is putting into things, the amount of time they really engage, or the way they rebound from set-backs helps to promote resiliency and work ethic rather than generating stress based on outcomes they may not be able to control (ie winning some prize or competition). As the article mentions, children who were wrapped up in outcome-based praise were more likely to cheat than those who were buoyed up by process-based encouragement, which makes sense if you consider that the emphasis is on what they accomplish, not on how they got there. This doesn’t mean we should dole out watered-down praise for half-hearted effort (see point #1), but we should recognize true effort and hard work, even when it doesn’t produce the “win”.
Get their input. Praise often fills a natural need for external approval, but it sometimes creates an addiction to people-pleasing. In an attempt to feed a positive self-concept, we unintentionally create a self-concept that is predicated on the opinions of others. Instead of always projecting your own perceptions, ask children what they think of their effort, of their work, or of their behavior. Sometimes you’d be surprised at what you can both learn from their introspection.
Some things are unconditional. It’s easy to become a praise-junkie when we are simply trying to create a positive atmosphere and help kids to recognize how wonderful we think they are. We want to build up their positive self-image and steady them against those hard days in life. But instead of over-doing the messages of praise, we can guild that self-esteem and security by giving them messages of love that are not conditional upon their labels. Let them know that you love them not because they are “smart”, but because they are yours.
What do you think? How do you focus on encouragement rather than judgment or praise with the children you love and teach? How do you encourage them to do their best, yet reinforce that your love is not a performance-based reward?
rick ackerly says
Great article. Thank you for bringing it back
Thank you, Rick. I’m honored to have you reading here!
Susan Case says
This is good insight to giving praise. Pinned it.
Thanks, Susan! Much appreciated!
Baker Wright says
I think the important part is about the difference between indiscriminate praise and specific praise, as you stated. Thanks for your insights on this article that has been often misrepresented recently!
Thank you! I agree that these findings have often been misunderstood. I’ve been dismayed to hear some parents suggesting they withhold kind words from their children, fearing that they’ll ruin them. You summed it up well — it isn’t about praising them, necessarily, it’s about how we do it :: indiscriminate praise, vs specific praise. Thanks so much for reading!
Hi there, what a useful article. As a mother of 3 little boys (including twins) I always feel I need to be fair, so probably do my fair share of over-praise. Loved your tips and the mindfulness running through this post bringing us to the point of giving unconditional love! Great article.
Thank you, Ali!
Dear Amanda, I think you should repost this every semester!! We tend to forget, to come back to what we are used to do following general culture. But when we put our heart on education, we asume the challenge to foster new and better ways to realte to children… and to ourselves. What happens to an adult who depends on other people´s praise? Here, an incredibly complete report on the issue:
“The Effects of Praise on Children’s Intrinsic Motivation: A Review and Synthesis” a cargo de Jennifer Henderlong (Reed College) y Mark R. Lepper (Stanford University)”*
* Psychological Bulletin Copyright 2002 by the American Psychological Association, Inc. 2002 (I can´t find the link on the web right now, but searching it I found this: http://www.progresivno.org/download/attachments/2162934/Nurture+shock.PDF?version=1&modificationDate=1297352858000
It mentions the New York Magazine article and seems to be interesting too.
Love and enjoy your family time!
Maggie Macaulay says
Thank you, Amanda! The July 10th issue of Parenting News, our free weekly newsletter for parents and educators, is about creating habits that lead to greater connection and happiness. A link to this article will definitely be included! We talk at length about the difference between praise and encouragement in the Redirecting Children’s Behavior Course. We view it from an internal and external perspective – that praise can be an external motivator whereas encouragement is an internal one. We do not recommend eliminating praise, simply recognizing the difference and practicing encouragement.
All the best –