News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Study: Praising Effort Motivates Kids Best
How you praise a young child may affect the way he or she faces challenges later, a new study suggests. Praising effort may boost motivation more than praising brains or talents, the authors said. The study included 53 children, ages 1 through 3. Parents were videotaped interacting with them at home for 90 minutes. Researchers analyzed the praise that parents gave. They divided it into "process" praise and "person" praise. Process praise focuses on how the child does something. For example, the parent might say: "You really worked hard on that." Person praise is directed at a child's personal qualities. So a parent might say: "You're really good at that." Boys on average received more process praise than girls. Researchers came back to the same families 5 years later, when the children were 7 or 8 years old. The children answered questions that focused on whether they liked challenges and were confident they could overcome setbacks. Overall, the more process praise children had as toddlers, the higher they scored on motivation to face challenges. The journal Child Development published the study. HealthDay News wrote about it February 12.
By Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
What Is the Doctor's Reaction?
How you praise your toddler matters. That is, if you want him or her to be a motivated child at later ages.
That's the finding of an interesting study just published in the journal Child Development. Researchers from the University of Chicago and Stanford studied 53 parent-child pairs. They recorded what the parents said to the children. In particular, they were listening for praise.
There are two different kinds of praise, which the researchers call "person praise" and "process praise." Person praise is directed at something about the person, such as "You are really smart!" Process praise is about the way the person does something, such as "Good job on that drawing!"
The researchers were interested in what kinds of praise people used with their toddlers and what affected the kind of praise they used. They also wanted to know whether the kind of praise the toddlers got affected their motivation 5 years later, when they were 7 or 8 years old.
Here's what they found:
- The amount of praise parents gave their children varied a lot.
- On the whole, parents gave similar amounts of person praise and process praise.
- Boys and girls got the same amount of overall praise. But boys got more process praise than girls did.
- The more process praise toddlers got (as a proportion of their total praise), the higher they scored on measures of motivation five years later.
This makes sense. If you praise children for their efforts, strategies and actions, it seems likely that they would be more motivated to try harder and try new things. If you praise them simply for who they are, it's possible that they might expect successes to come (or not come) to them. They might not be as motivated to work for those successes.
However, it's not fully clear from the study that this is the explanation for what the researchers found. Questions need to be answered. The researchers themselves raise some of them:
- What about the five years in between? Doesn't what happened in those years matter?
- Since praise was only about 3% of what parents said to children, what about the other 97%?
- Is it possible that the boys got more process praise because they were more likely to do activities that prompted that kind of praise?
What Changes Can I Make Now?
Given the questions about the study, parents don't need to make any changes now in how they talk to or praise their toddlers. But it is worth thinking about. I think it's especially worthwhile to try to give toddlers, both boys and girls, more process praise. Here are some examples:
- "Great job building that tower with your blocks!"
- "I really like how you picked up your toys."
- "You really kicked that ball hard!"
- "I liked that you played nicely with the girl in the sandbox."
If you are the parent or caretaker of a toddler girl, it also may be worthwhile to see whether indeed you are more likely to give her person praise than process praise. If that's the case, you might want to make some changes in what you say.
What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
We know that the actions of parents and caretakers influence the growth and development of children. The more we understand about how this happens, the better. Then doctors can help parents and caretakers give children what they need for happier, healthier and more successful lives.