As parents, we're supposed to praise kids because it boosts their self-esteem and helps them achieve, right? Maybe not. According to some recent studies, the answer depends on how you praise kids.
Carol Dweck, PhD, a psychologist at Stanford University, studied praise and its effect on children when she was at Columbia University in New York City.
She and her colleagues randomly divided 400 5th graders from New York City public schools into two groups. The students were taken out of the classroom individually and given a relatively easy series of puzzles to do. When they were finished, one group of students was praised for intelligence and told, "You must be smart at this," while the other group was praised for effort and told, "You must have worked really hard."
Then the students were given a test to take. They could choose one that was either harder or easier than the first test. Researchers told the children that if they chose the hard test, they'd learn a lot by doing it. Dweck found that 90% of the children who were praised for their effort on the first test chose the harder test while the majority of the children who were praised for their intelligence on the first test chose the easier one.
Dweck took the study one step further and gave the students a very hard test that they would surely fail. The children who were praised for their effort on the first test kept trying to figure the test out. Many even enjoyed it. Children who were praised for their intelligence, however, were upset by the test's difficulty, as if failure would mean that they weren't smart after all.
The last part of the study was even more interesting. The children were given another easy test, similar to the first one they took. The group of children who had been praised for their effort on the first test raised their scores by about 30%. The group praised for their intelligence scored about 20% lower — even though the test wasn't any harder.
What does this tell us? According to Dweck, children who are praised for their intelligence don't want to look stupid. They worry that maybe they aren't as intelligent as people tell them they are. So they lose their motivation to try harder tasks and instead choose tasks they know they will succeed at, and get very unnerved by failure.
Children who are praised for their effort, on the other hand, believe they are capable of taking on new challenges, are more motivated, perform better and are more likely to take failure in stride.
Intelligence is something that can grow with effort — a concept Dweck calls the "growth mindset." To show how critical it is to focus on the effort a child puts into a task, Dweck and her colleagues did another study with a group of underachieving, middle school students in New York City. Half the students took a class on study skills; the other half took the same class, but were also taught that intelligence grows with effort. The students who learned the growth mindset went on to do much better in school than those who didn't learn it.
It's hard to stop telling our kids they are smart. There are times when a child may need to hear it. But if all a child hears is that he is smart, it can backfire. It's important that children know that effort counts and that mistakes are part of learning — and not the end of the world.
Here are examples of how to praise a child's effort:
Specific praise is better than general praise. It's natural to feel a bit suspicious of general praise, such as "You're so smart," "You're such a good soccer player," "What a nice person you are." Studies have shown that children are suspect of general praise as early as preschool. When the praise is more specific, however, it's not only more believable but it can help guide behavior:
Many parents use general praise because they want their child to feel special and loved. They worry that specific praise might leave a child feeling that their approval is somehow conditional. General praise, they think, feels unconditional. But research on praise, including Dweck's, suggests that parents may need to rethink this approach.
Praise is important, but there are other ways to make a child feel loved, build a strong relationship and raise a child who is confident and motivated to learn:
Claire McCarthy, M.D. is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.