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How to (and how not to) praise kids

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There was a fascinating article by Po Bronson in New York Magazine this past February, titled "How Not to Talk to Your Kids." It covers a bunch of studies about the effects of praise on kids, most prominently a study by psychologist Carol Dweck:

The researchers would take a single child out of [a New York fifth-grade] classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles--puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

...

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test.

...[In a third round, the test was extra-hard, and everyone failed.]...

Having artificially induced a round of failure, Dweck’s researchers then gave all the fifth-graders a final round of tests that were engineered to be as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score--by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning--by about 20 percent.

There's a whole bunch more in the article--if you're at all interested in this, you should go read the whole thing. There's a study where students who were taught that (as the article puts it) "the brain grows new neurons when challenged" later did significantly better academically. There's a study that determined that praise needs to be specific to work. There's a study that suggested that children over age 7 are suspicious of praise, and that 12-year-olds see it as "a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement." There's a meta-analysis of other studies that "determined that praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy." There's a discussion of praise and cheating, and a comment that "A child deprived of the opportunity to discuss mistakes can’t learn from them."

And there's this:

[T]he ability to repeatedly respond to failure by exerting more effort--instead of simply giving up--is a trait well studied in psychology. People with this trait, persistence, rebound well and can sustain their motivation through long periods of delayed gratification.

The last page of the article is a personal discussion by the article's author of his attempts to put the ideas into practice with his son. Fascinating stuff.

As I think I noted in comments to whoever posted the link to this article back when I first saw it, I kind of hate what I see as the core idea here: the idea of withholding praise rubs me the wrong way. (Although, on the other hand, in situations like writing workshops I often have to be reminded to include praise as well as criticism.) I hate making people feel bad, and I'm not good at giving criticism in a way that will be constructive.

And yet, the studies discussed in the article ring pretty true with my experience. (Though the following anecdotal items are not really all on the same topic; I'm just musing.)

For example, I was always praised for being smart--and (maybe partly as a result) I was always scared of looking dumb. All through high school and college I usually sat quietly in my classrooms, not saying the answers even if I knew them, because if it turned out I was wrong, I would look dumb in front of everyone. I did the things I was naturally good at, but even now I tend to avoid any activity that doesn't come easily to me. And although this isn't quite the same thing, I never worked hard in school because I never had to, which left me ill-prepared when (for example) BC Calculus came along in 12th grade and kicked my butt. (And even there, I got a decent grade in the class and did well on the AP exam, because I'm really good at taking tests, so there were no serious consequences to my lack of effort.)

And one of the few incidents that did motivate me to work harder in high school was when my 9th-grade science teacher wrote, on a barely-adequate lab assignment, "You're too smart to drop the ball like this." That criticism did get me to start actually putting in some effort. (Though it was criticism couched in praise for intelligence, so I'm not sure how to classify it by Dweck's standards.)

On the other hand, the praise (implicit and explicit) probably contributed to my solid core of self-esteem; I never had to worry about whether I was actually smart or not. (Well, and the test-taking skills helped too; I got lots of allegedly objective positive feedback in the form of test scores.) And although high school rarely challenged me intellectually (partly because I didn't pursue anything that looked too challenging), certainly my father constantly pushed me to exercise my mind. He regularly posed math puzzles; when I asked him what a word meant, he would tell me to go look it up in the dictionary; he was always providing the impetus to be intellectually curious, to keep asking questions.

So I can't say that I didn't have that idea that exercising your brain improves it. But I was a lot closer to the kids in the Dweck study who were praised for being smart than to the ones who were praised for working hard, and I don't think it's a coincidence that it took me a long time to learn to work hard.

Anyway. The article is a popularizing article, and the Dweck study in particular was (as noted in passing in the article) a brief moment rather than an ongoing study. Who knows whether there are significant long-term effects in any of this.

But I think it's worth thinking about. And so many of my friends are parents now that I thought it was worth passing along.

I'd be curious to hear anecdotally whether any of this meshes with y'all's experiences, either in the ways you've reacted to praise yourself or the ways kids have reacted to praise from you.

11 Comments

I don't know if this is universal or not - I suspect it may depend on what sort of religious background you come from - but when I was at school there was a definite attitude in some quarters that if you were praised for working hard that was good, but if you were just praised for being smart then you were effectively being accused of making use of an unfair advantage.


The downside being, if you constantly praise the smart kids for their effort, they may assume that the reason other kids are having a harder time is because they're lazy. They've earned their praise, after all...

Jed, I think it's okay to praise. Recommended, even, since not everyone will have learned this trick of delaying gratification... you just have to consider how you deliver that praise. (In my experience, few things keep me going like "you did a good job on this.")


Jed, I think the core idea in this isn't that praise is bad. It's more that you should be careful about what additional messages your praise might convey.

In the praise for intelligence vs praise for effort example, it reminds me of research I've seen that people (college students, in this case) react quite differently when they believe that a person's intelligence is unchangeable versus when they believe it's something that can be changed. Students who believe that intelligence is fixed and how much they currently have will be how much they'll ever have, can end up underperforming because they don't believe extra effort will pay off. Whereas students who believe that intelligence is changeable by their own efforts, will be more likely to make more of an effort and thus perform better.

To me, this sounds quite similar -- if the kids believed they did well because of something essentially outside of their control ("intelligence"), then they didn't have much motivation to attempt something harder in hopes of improving the un-improvable. But on the other hand, if they believed they did well because of something in their control ("effort"), then the motivation to attempt something harder and improve is there.


One of the things that I think crippled me was that throughout my high school career, my teachers kept telling me that I was doing good, but that I could do much better and clearly wasn't making an effort. Eventually I got fed up and started really slacking at school.


Very interesting! One thing I've noticed with my two kids is that one of them is a praise seeker and is positively motivated by praise and the other one doesn't give a crap most of the time. Bet you can guess which one is which! Theo seeks praise and when he is praised for certain behaviors often feels motivated to repeat that behavior. So we can use praise really effectively with him. The Maud has never responded much to praise, although we're really careful to praise her efforts anyway. Maybe she does care and doesn't react. Every once and a while she lights up when praised, but I think it's because in those instances we're just confirming what she suspected herself.


Both of my kids are very motivated by praise and totally crushed when I express disappointment. I give praise for extra effort and/or persistence and disappointment when I feel they slacked off for specific things they do. I think persistence over time is one of the things that helps you succeed in life. I should also note that when I was a manager I found it a very effective way to manage people.

However unlike the people I used to manage I also tell both of them they're smart and sweet and various other nice things but I wouldn't classify that as praise since it's rarely tied to things they do and more on my mood. Smart is a character trait the sum of things one does over time. I also tell them they're my favorite kids ever. True. And the best kids ever. Up to the reader to decide. My daughter once wisely asked "Don't all moms think their kids are the best?" I said "Yes I should hope so." Nonetheless she never seems to get tired of hearing it and sometimes even asks for me to tell her these things. She never directly asks for praise because she seems to understand that it's earned.


I read that article back in Feb; it rang reasonably true for me. OTOH, you can take pushing-smart-kids-to-work-harder too far; I'm still faintly outraged by the fourth-grade teacher who gave me all Bs (she gave everyone all Bs or below) because she thought giving As encouraged kids to not work hard. It really outraged my sense of justice, and made me not want to do *anything*.


I would add that it is rather hard not to praise a smart child for being smart. When the Bean does fairly complicated (for a 6 year old) math in her head, I am frequently likely to praise her smarts rather than her effort. Some of that is my trying to encourage her in an academic area where my aptitude was limited and my efforts weren't enough to overcome either my limitations or the bad teaching I got. But she knows she's a smart cookie. I would add that she is really lazy about wanting to work at things so I'm aware that I need to be praising effort more.


Jed, you put a lot of effort into sharing this very interesting article. Good job! (hehehe)


Fascinating. Something to think more about (Forwarding a link to various parents, aunts, teachers I know...)


I generally try to be careful with evaluative praise and abundant with descriptive praise, an idea I got from the excellent parenting book "How To Talk So Kids Will Listen (And Listen So Kids Will Talk)", which I think is older than this current crop of research, but contains, I think, a plausible explanation for it: that when kids hear your evaluation of them, they question it (or wonder how they can arrange to repeat it), but when they hear an account that matches and complements their experience, they assign their own evaluations, and believe them.

I almost never tell my kids that they are smart; I expect they can't miss that they are ahead of their peers in a variety of areas (and behind in others), but I try to treat these facts like they are uninteresting and unimportant (which, in fact, I think they are). I say, more than I probably should, "Good job!" (though Aviva, who has mastered the relevant psychological theories and heard the Tao Te Ching's likewise dim opinion of praise, will sometimes object at this).

The most effective reinforcement, and what I try to practice, is to give specific, concrete descriptive praise: "Wow, look at all these blues and greens. That really looks like a cloud. Not just a cloud but a COZY cloud. You did this all by yourself? I bet you really worked at it. Or was it easy? What was it like?"

And probably even better than that is simply to be interested and engaged in what the kid is interested and engaged in, with them.

When Noah says "one plus one is two!", I think if I say "you're right! that's perfect! good job!" that kicks him out of the moment of excitement about math and into a whole other conversation, one where he has to start wondering about why it was a good job, what a bad job would have looked like, what he should avoid and what he should ensure. If instead I say "right! what's two plus two?" then we are playing the same game, and the message he receives of my excitement about and acceptance of his intellectual life is much more powerful.

Yet a third kind of praise, which I indulge in copiously, is simple expression of affection. I think this is what makes people suspicious of any "praise less" theory, because kids thrive on expressions of affection like plants on water. But I think that when I say "you are wonderful, I love you a gazillion lalilion times infinity, you are the apple of my eye, you are the best girl and boy in the world for me," that is neither descriptive nor evaluative praise, nor is it understood as such; it's just love. Nowhere here is there a yardstick, a notion of what a non-wonderful child would look like, an explicit admonition, an asset of parental approval based on performance or nature which must be guarded. Sometimes my kids interrogate this -- "doesn't every parent say their child is the best?" -- to which I answer, "I certainly hope so."


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