Psychologists Find Danger in Parents' Praise
> 2/13/2007 12:09:52 PM

While most folks wouldn't think twice about offering up praise to their child, especially for a job well done, a growing contingent of psychologists has found that the exact wording and content of that praise can actually have negative effects on children's future performances. In a well researched cover-story for this week's New York Magazine writer Po Bronson tackles the literature that surrounds the idea of praise, and especially how it relates to academic performance. The article, entitled How Not to Talk to Your Kids, draws heavily from the work of many psychologists and researchers, but none more prominently than Carol Dweck, Stanford University's Lewis and Virgina Eaton Professor of Psychology.

While working at Columbia, Dweck and her team performed numerous studies in New York City's public schools looking at the relationship between praise, motivation and performance. During her seminal study, Dweck had children complete a puzzle and complimented them with one line of praise; either "You must be smart at this" or "You must have worked really hard." The former was selected because it emphasized innate abilities, while the latter compliment centered on the effort given. When a second test was proffered, the subject were given a choice of a harder test that they were told would help them learn a great deal and the other choice was an easy test similar to what they'd completed. Of the children who were praised for the effort they gave, 90% chose to do the harder test. Those praised for their intelligence resoundingly chose the easier test.

Bronson writes:

Why did this happen? “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

In a subsequent round, none of the fifth-graders had a choice. The test was difficult, designed for kids two years ahead of their grade level. Predictably, everyone failed. But again, the two groups of children, divided at random at the study’s start, responded differently. Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’?” Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”

Many other researchers have worked toward proving similar theories about self-worth and motivation. Bronson points out that many have taken as their starting point Nathaniel Branden's 1969 book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, in which Branden calls self-esteem "the single most important facet of a person."

Bronson also mentions German psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, as well as Jennifer Crocker of the University of Michgan and Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, each of whom has contributed to the academic dialogue in the area of praise and motivation. While it would be impossible to go into all of the angles in this post, Bronson's article is a worthy read if only to have the insight into the research that is being done.

Bronson ends the article by talking about her own experiences with trying to change the way that she praised her own child. She found it to be both rewarding and quite difficult:

Truth be told, while my son was getting along fine under the new praise regime, it was I who was suffering. It turns out that I was the real praise junkie in the family. Praising him for just a particular skill or task felt like I left other parts of him ignored and unappreciated. I recognized that praising him with the universal “You’re great—I’m proud of you” was a way I expressed unconditional love.

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