Praising A Kid Can Be Dangerous

Most parents today feel like a big part of their responsibility as a parent is to be their child’s cheerleader. Good parents (or grandparents or teachers or coaches), so the story goes, praise their kids: good hit, great job, you’re so smart, good girl, etc… The idea is that kids who are praised often will feel validated. They will feel good about themselves and turn that positive self-esteem into a successful life.

But what if that idea is completely wrong? What if instead of helping your child, your praise is actually hindering your child? That’s the conclusion arrived at by psychologist Carol Dweck and her team of researchers and explained in New York Magazine. The study, involving 400 fifth-graders in a dozen New York schools, found that much of what passes as parental praise can be quite harmful.

In one set of tests the research team either praised the child’s intelligence or their effort. What they found is that those children who were praised on the basis of effort were far more likely to seek out more difficult challenges and persevere when problems arose. Those children who were praised based on their intelligence (“You’re so smart.”) were more likely to underestimate their own abilities, expect less of themselves, underrate the importance of effort, and avoid risks.

“Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.”

Why is this the case? According to Dweck, “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

The report revealed that praise hinders the performance of students in every socioeconomic class, both boys and girls–especially the very brightest girls, and even preschoolers.

One set of tests was performed in the magnet school Life Sciences which had 700 low achieving students. Students who received a 50 minute lecture focused on the idea “that the brain is a muscle” and “giving it a harder workout makes you smarter” dramatically improved their math scores as compared with students who received the same instruction but didn’t hear the lecture.

But not all praise is harmful. In fact some can be quite helpful. However, in order for praise to be beneficial it must be specific and sincere. Starting at age 7 kids begin to look at the motive behind the praise. “Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well.”

The article concludes with the suggestion that maybe the real praise junkies aren’t the kids but the parents. Maybe generic praise helps parents feel good about their kids so that the parents can feel good about themselves.

I’d strongly recommend the entire article. On the same subject see Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards.

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