Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

How to praise children

with 4 comments

Update: I had another thought, which came to me after reading Hunt, Gather, Parent, by Michaeleen Doucleff, a book I strongly recommend. The book describes how children are raised in cultures with deep traditions — that is, traditions honed over many generations. The thought is this: Don’t praise children. You certainly can admire and value what they accomplish, but don’t be so quick to put it into words. Use actions and attitudes instead.

I wrote to a friend about the book:

Another point Doucleff makes in the book is not to praise the child for tasks done (just as we don’t praise children as they learn to speak — instead of praising them, we just talk with them). The idea of praising is that self-esteem is important and praising the child will boost its self-esteem — but that’s wrong. Self-esteem comes from the self, not others, and doing a job well increases self-esteem. Important point: doing a job well is under the child’s own control. The parent can help by showing a child how to do it — “Watch me and learn this” — and then letting the child practice and gain experience.

But praise is NOT under the child’s control. That comes (or not) from another person, so if the child becomes conditioned to expect praise, it will be anxious: it needs something that lies outside its control. Whereas doing a good job has the locus of control within the child, getting praise moves the locus of control outside the child, and that situation — no longer having an internal locus of control — results in anxiety and depression.

The author doesn’t specifically mention this point — she just observes that the Mayan parents don’t praise and see no need for it, and their children and happy and helpful. My comment about locus of control is what I see, and relates to things I learned from reading Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman, and Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn (both in my list books I find myself repeatedly recommending).

It occurs to me that one reason parents like to praise (or scold) their children is that, while they cannot control their children (directly), they can control whether to praise (or scold) or not. And note that if a child is conditioned by being frequently praised, the Pavlovian reflex sets in so that the child becomes addicted to praise and becomes upset if the dose of praise fails to arrive. This shows how much the locus of control has slipped from the child, who no longer is satisfied by his or her own accomplishments.

I do recommend Doucleff’s book. There’s much in it of value. And attempts to replicate Dweck’s experiments have shown that the effects are not so strong as she suggests — and in any event, she does use verbal praise, just changing to object of the praise. Doucleff’s book shows what seems to me a better way. /update

Mind Hacks points to a good article:

There’s a fascinating article in The New York Magazine about the dramatic effects of different types of praise on a child’s success when tackling new challenges.

A team of researchers led by Prof Carol Dweck asked children to complete a series of short tests, and randomly divided into groups. Each child was given a single line of praise.

One group was praised for their intelligence (“You must be smart at this”), while the others were praised for their effort (“You must have worked really hard”). This simple difference had a startling effect.

Children who were praised for their effort were more likely to choose a harder test when given a choice, were less likely to become disheartened when given a test they were guaranteed to fail, and when finally given the original tests again, their marks improved.

In contrast, the children praised for their intelligence tended to choose an easier test if asked, were distressed by failure, and actually had worse marks after re-taking the original tests.

Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “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.”

In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.

Repeating her experiments, Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and girls—the very brightest girls especially (they collapsed the most following failure).

The article is fascinating, although it seems the writer has somewhat overused the phrase ‘the inverse power of praise’ and might lead some people to think that praise itself has an ‘inverse effect’.

Praising children is incredibly important. Countless psychological studies have shown that excessive critical comments have a damaging effect on mental health.

This research just suggests that in terms of encouraging children to tackle challenges effectively, praising their effort seems more effective than praising their intelligence.

The article is a thorough look at the issues raised by this research, and how it is being applied in education.

A (pdf) copy of the article. And more about having a sense of control. And Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Written by Leisureguy

13 February 2007 at 1:10 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Thank you for posting this. Some good information! Thank you.



    29 May 2007 at 12:18 am

  2. Really a good piece of information. Also this gives me another insight: This can be used to review how we think about ourselves; while introspecting our own success or failure .

    good one.



    10 September 2007 at 5:44 am

  3. Omits the long-term psychological damage this can cause. Who wants kids to grow up obsessed with pleasing their (unpleasable if you follow the advice) parents?

    A better study needs doing, with deeper thoughts into the consequences.



    21 August 2015 at 5:01 pm

  4. What long-term damage do you foresee? I don’t quite understand “unpleaseable.” It sounds to me that the parents are pleased by the child making the effort, rather than withholding being pleased until the child “succeeds.” To be concrete, the parent might be pleased if the child practices the piano, but not withhold approval until the piece is played perfectly. I see it as making the parent more readily pleased (by honest effort).

    And I agree with you, not only about this study, but about all studies: Better studies are always desirable, and certainly one wants deeper thoughts into the consequences. Perhaps you can explain better your own thoughts on the long-term consequences. Right now, I simply don’t understand.



    21 August 2015 at 5:13 pm

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