Praising your child

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We all want our children to feel good about themselves and know we believe in them. One of the ways we accomplish this is through praise. However, research is showing that not all praise is equal. A recent study by researchers at Stanford and Columbia universities studied familiesin their homes and classified the praise that parents used with young children into three categories: process praise emphasized a child’s effort, strategies or actions (such as “you’re trying your best,” “good job counting). Person praise implied that a child possessed a fixed, positive quality, (“you’re a smart girl,” “you’re good at this”). Other praise included all other types of praise (“you got it, “great”). The researchers then interviewed the children five-years later and discovered that those who had received a larger percentage of process praise as toddlers were more likely to prefer challenging versus easy tasks and more likely to believe that traits such as intelligence and personality could be improved with effort. The study’s lead author, Elizabeth Gunderson, concludes: “these findings suggest that improving the quality of early parental praise may help children develop the belief that their future success is in their hands”

While the study with toddlers did not find any relation between person praise and other praise and the children’s preference for easy versus challenging tasks or their beliefs over the malleability of intelligence and personality, earlier research by one of the study’s co-authors suggests that person praise could actually have negative consequences for older children. In a 2007 study of 400 fifth-graders, psychology professor Carol Dweck found a significant difference in responses to challenges and failure between children who were told they were smart (person praise) and those who were told they worked hard (process praise). Children who received process praise were more likely to choose and enjoy challenging tasks and less likely to respond negatively to failure. Those who were praised on their natural intelligence were more likely to discount the importance of effort and to collapse in the face of failure. Dweck’s research was covered in an article that appeared in New York magazine about the “inverse power of praise”. The article also mentions other research that supports the idea that the esteem-building praise we often think of as part of ‘good’ parenting can actually have negative consequences for not only our children’s behaviour and performance, but also for their sense of themselves as competent and capable individuals. For example, in an analysis of 150 praise studies, researchers found praised children are consistently more fearful of taking risks, are less persistent with tasks, and spend more time questioning themselves and their abilities.

As a parent of a gifted child who is consistently told how smart she is by any and all who meet her, but who just as consistently doubts her own abilities and gives up almost immediately on any task that she finds difficult, I have seen first hand how kids who are praised for their innate intelligence can develop a fear of failure, an aversion to risk and a belief that anything you can not immediately succeed at, you are innately ‘bad’ at.  Dweck explains “when praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” Instead, she argues, if we emphasize effort we give children a sense of control over their success and less to loose in the event of failure. Rather than proof they are “not smart” or innately bad at something, failure becomes an opportunity to try harder or adopt a new strategy. Over the last few years, after reading about gifted children and the hazards of developing an identity based around the words “you’re so smart!” I have made an effort to erase those words from my vocabulary, and as she matures and takes on more risks, I am watching her become more confident in her ability to accomplish things that she initially finds difficult. I also have two younger children and have tried to follow the advice of research that tells me to avoid telling my children how beautiful, smart and generally amazing they are. But it’s not easy. Praising our children is something that comes naturally to almost every parent. We want our children to feel good about themselves and to know how fantastic we think they are and how proud we are of them. We want them to feel loved and appreciated unconditionally. And it feels good to be told you are a smart, beautiful, funny, talented person, so why wouldn’t we want to give that to our children? Po Bronson, the author of the piece in New York magazine, writes of his own struggle to change the way he offered praise to his son and suggests “offering praise has become a sort of panacea for the anxieties of modern parenting. Out of our children’s lives from breakfast to dinner, we turn it up a notch when we get home. In those few hours together, we want them to hear the things we can’t say during the day – We are in your corner, we are here for you, we believe in you.” He notes that praising our children can be as much for us as it can be for them.

So, maybe – like me and Po Bronson – you won’t be able to completely wean yourself off of enthusiastic declarations of your children’s innate brilliance, and I’m not sure anyone would argue you should, but the research clearly shows that the larger the percentage of praise that is directed at a child`s actions, strategies or efforts, the better. In general, most parenting experts make the following recommendations around praise:

  1. Use descriptive praise that focuses on what the child does rather than who they are. For example, instead of saying “you are being such a good girl/boy” try “I like the way you are playing nicely with your sister”; instead of “that painting is beautiful”, try something like “I like all the colours you used“; instead of “you’re such an awesome soccer player” try “you did a great job passing the ball today and seemed really focused out there.”
  2. Keep your praise sincere and avoid offer it at the right time. Too much praise can dilute its impact and make your children skeptical of your belief in their abilities. If you praise your child profusely for everything they do, in the times when they do put in real effort and overcome challenges your praise will mean less. This is particularly true for older children; once they turn about seven, kids can see through insincere statements the same way adults can.
  3. Avoid pairing praise with negative observations or statements. The negative tends to outweigh the good. So, for example, if you say something like “Good work on this math test. You must have studied really hard. But, why did you get question nine wrong? We went over fractions ten times when you were studying”, the praise for the high grade and hard work gets lost in the criticism over the wrong answer.
  4. Encourage your children to acknowledge and focus on the intrinsic rewards and motivation rather than on receiving praise or other external rewards. Instead of offering a vague “good job” when your child shows off an accomplishment, try something like “Wow, you seem really proud of yourself. That must feel good.” This is especially true when they are facing something challenging or lose out a motivating reward. If your daughter’s team loses the trophy at a hockey tournament, instead of offering praise about how well she skated or something else that will likely fall flat, talk about the thrill of having achieved a goal of making it to the tournament or about the physical sensation of playing hard and pushing yourself to play harder.