To Praise or Not to Praise….What REALLY Helps Children?

“You’re the BEST climber!”

Ok, Shakespeare never wrote to “to praise or not to praise.” And even if he had, the real question that caring adults are asking is more about HOW and WHAT to praise.

Does It Help Children When Adults Praise?

How Often Do You Say “Good Job?”

Do any of these sound like things you might say?

  • “You are a very smart little girl.”
  • “You’re awesome at writing letters.”
  •  “Thank you for being a great helper!”
  • “Wow!  This is such a beautiful picture!”

Parents and educators have been told for decades that praising children is the gold standard for building self-esteem and reinforcing “good” behavior.  For the easy price of that verbal “good job” (or some variation), we hope young children learn confidence, kindness, sharing, self-control, reading, fine motor skills, compliance, cooperation, positive self-regard, AND much, much more!

Unfortunately, for adults hooked on praise (who can resist those sweet smiles we get in return?) there are convincing arguments against praise – or at least against overly frequent use of praise about personal traits.

Study on How Children Respond to Praise

A compelling study led by psychologist Carol Dweck involved hundreds of children in New York City public elementary schools.  Children were invited to work on a simple problem one-on-one with a researcher.  After completing the problem, the researcher praised half the children for being “smart at this” (a personal trait), and praised the other half for “working hard at this” (a behavior).  The children were then invited to tackle 3 more problems.

Here’s what happened:

Children praised for “being smart” were more likely to select a less challenging second problem.  They were more anxious working on the third difficult problem, and their scores on the fourth simple problem declined by about 20 percent.

Children praised for “working hard” went on to select a more challenging second problem.  They worked harder, more persistently and enthusiastically on the third difficult problem, and their scores on the fourth simple problem improved by 30 percent.

Imagine:  All this variation from one single line of praise.  Even Dr. Dweck was surprised by the strength of the results.  So she repeated the study.  Over five times.

What Makes Children Avoid Challenges and Give Up?

Dr. Dweck has found that when children receive praise that labels them as “being smart” (or “being” some other personal quality) they begin to feel less confident.  They are more likely to avoid challenges, worry about failure, and give up more easily when the going gets tough.  They become less willing to risk trying something that could show they might not “be smart.”

On the other hand, children praised for effort and how they work seem more confident and interested in challenges. They see that choosing to try hard, persist, and brainstorm another idea leads to improvement and learning. Dr. Dweck’s studies found that children who receive praise for effort not only try harder, but seem to enjoy trying.

Most of us want to help children learn to enjoy challenges and to be persistent and enthusiastic.  It appears that the words caring adults choose can make a difference.

We may need to adjust our thinking, and our words.

How Can Caring Adults Encourage Children?

  1. Comment about behaviors based on effort like persistence or practice rather than complimenting with broad generalities.
    • Instead of:You’re awesome at writing numbers.”
    • Try:  “Your hard work and concentration really shows in how you wrote these numbers.” 
  2. Describe something specific you observe a child doing.
    • Instead of:  “Thank you for being a great helper!”
    • Try: You kept moving the blocks around ‘til they all fit neatly on the shelf.  Thanks!”
  3. Comment about the “process” rather than complimenting the end “product.” Be careful not to judge.
    • Instead of: “This is such a beautiful picture.”
    • Try:  “You used a lot of red and blue.  Tell me more about this picture.  What do you like about it?” 
  4. Encourage children to tackle reasonable challenges, rather than protecting them from possible failure.  Trying and failing is part of learning and growing.
    • Instead of:  “Get down – monkey bars are too hard for kids your age.”
    • Try:  “Good for you trying something so tough!  Sometimes we have to work hard and keep trying to learn something new.”

Note:  If you would like to learn more about Dr. Dweck’s work, take a look at her book:  Mindset: The New Psychology of Success – How We can Learn to Fulfill our Potential.


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