We’re often told that when we praise a child, we’re boosting their self-esteem, helping them become more confident and increasing their happiness. But now it appears that all types of praise are not equal, and some forms of praise may be detrimental to children. A 2007 article by Po Bronson, featured in New York Magazine, titled “How not to Talk to your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise,” references a study conducted by psychologist Carol Dweck.
Dweck’s study of 400 fifth graders revealed some interesting details about what occurs when we praise a child for being intelligent. From the study, Dweck discovered that telling a child “You’re smart,” corresponds to underachievement in the classroom. Conversely, if we praise a child by emphasizing that their work is helping them to “grow their brain muscle,” or to amass greater intelligence, they are more likely to have higher achievement in school. Students who were acquainted with the concept that attaining intelligence was a process, instead of the concept that they were naturally smart, tended to be more inclined to take on harder work. Some students in Dweck’s study group were told that the brain was like any muscle. It developed more the harder it was worked, and many responded accordingly even choosing to work on more difficult material so they could “develop” the brain muscle.
Children who were considered “smart” or who were praised for their intelligence tended to have two responses to this information. When work appeared hard, they generally didn’t want to do it, and typically underachieved in the classroom. They made the logical leap that work should be easy because they were smart, and when it wasn’t they became easily frustrated. They also, given a choice, chose easier work so they could showcase and prove that they were smart.
This study actually picks up on other mental health professionals’ work on what happens when we praise a child. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s book How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, published in 1980, made a similar case for the way in which we praise a child could actually have an adverse or inverse effect. They advocated praise centered on the child that would help the child gather greater self-esteem.
When we praise a child by saying “You’re smart,” the praise becomes centered on us. The child learns several things. He learns that parents become proud when a child appears smart, and he is thus cast into a role of being smart. This makes the child unwilling to make mistakes or do anything that would take away the parent’s pride. Suppose a parent instead says: “I can see how hard you worked on this sentence, and your spelling has really improved. You must be proud of yourself.”
Instead of asking the child to be smart, when you praise a child, you are acknowledging the child’s improvement, and also suggesting that the best source to find pride is within. When we praise a child in the second example, we are emphasizing hard work, and the process of intellectual development. The child doesn’t need to be perfect, he just needs to be developing and working hard to merit such praise and should also take pride in himself.
Detailed praise that focuses on the child’s choices, perspectives and actual work, may be better than simple, “Wow you’re smart,” or “Wow you’re so athletically gifted.” Instead, consider, “I saw how hard you studied for that test,” or “That shot at the end of the game was really amazing, and I saw how patiently you waited your turn on the bench.” Emphasizing growth instead of a state of being tends to encourage a child, and often proves a better way to praise a child.
Other psychologists and child development experts have made the same contention, and it certainly appears from evidence gathered by Dweck to hold true. How we praise a child matters. The specific things we say seem to matter, and in some cases, what we think is helpful praise may turn out to add pressure to a child’s life, or result in them not trying to better themselves. Also focusing on their pride, instead of our own, can help them learn greater self-esteem. When pride is always parent or adult dependent, how can a child learn to credit himself with trying and learning?