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.