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The Right Way to Praise Kids

October 25, 2007 | Posts with Videos | 8 comments


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Oh Honey! You're so—uh—well—

Kelly Corrigan: Now that I am seeing everything though this fixed mindset/growth mindset prism, I feel a little tongue-tied around my kids. I've been in a terrible habit of saying things like "You're such a good artist" and "You have a beautiful singing voice."

Christine Carter, Ph.D. : I do it, too. I am training myself to keep pointing out that practice pays off.

KC: It's Interpersonal Communications 101: always separate the action from the actor. "You are being mean" rather than "You are mean." We have to stop generalizing and talk instead about specific actions.

tools-icon-fridge.gifCC: "You connected with the ball much better this time" carries a completely different message than "You are a fantastic baseball player."

KC: The trick is when I'm trying to build up my kids' confidence. For instance, when I see Claire struggle or hesitate, I want to say, "You can do this, honey. You're a smart girl."

CC: That's a mixed message. The fixed-mindset part—telling her she's smart—is tempting but that's exactly the kind of praise is that causes problems. (By the way, I'm constantly having to stop myself from saying to my kids "You're brilliant!") We need make the message constructive by saying something like "I know you can do it if you put your mind to it."

KC: Praise is a powerful drug for a kid. Once they've tasted it, they'll do anything to get it again. tools-icon-tv.gif

CC: Kids feel people evaluating and judging them. And certain praise reinforces feelings of being valued for their achievements alone. Carol Dweck says, based on her studies of thousands of kids, "Maybe the ability they proved yesterday is not up to today's task. Maybe they were smart enough for algebra but not calculus. So they're racing to prove themselves over and over…amassing countless affirmations, but not necessarily ending up where they want to be."

KC: That is heartbreaking.

CC: Dweck's team did an experiment where they give kids a short test and then one line of praise. They either said: "You did really well; you must be very smart," (fixed mindset) OR they said, "You did really well; you must have worked really hard" (growth mindset). After the first puzzle, the researchers offered the kids either a harder puzzle that they could learn from or one that was easier than the one they completed successfully. The majority of the kids praised for their intelligence wanted the easier puzzle—they weren't going to risk making a mistake and loosing their status as "smart." On the other hand, more than 90% of growth-mindset encouraged kids chose a harder puzzle. Why? Dweck explains: "when we praise children for the effort and hard work that leads to achievement, they want to keep engaging in that process. They are not diverted from the task of learning by a concern with how smart they might—or might not—look."tools-icon-book.gif

KC: It makes sense to me. Attributing success to innate gifts is a recipe for anxiety and joyless achievement.

CC: Joyless is the key word. In Dweck's study, during the first puzzle, pretty much everyone had fun. But when the ability-praised kids were given a harder puzzle, they said it wasn't fun anymore. Because it's no fun when your special talent is in jeopardy. Effort-praised kids continued to have fun even when they weren't doing as well.In another study, praising kids' "smarts"actually lowered their IQ scores! Besides making them insecure and crushing the fun of learning something new, telling kids that how smart they are actually hinders performance.

KC: So we can praise our kids all day long, as long we focus on effort, commitment, resourcefulness, and tenacity.

CC: Right. Because those are the things that truly help them grow and succeed.

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Thanks for the fascinating conversation!  Having the two-person discussion underlines just how counterintuitive and difficult it is to drop the “you’re so good at this!” type of praise.
A recent book related to this topic is “Unconditional Parenting” by Alfie Kohn (he also wrote “Punished by Rewards”).  He talks about both sides of the coin — how both praise *and* punishment make the child feel that the parent’s love is dependent upon a certain type of behavior.  I found it a difficult and mind-blowing book — but I know I don’t want my son to think either “Mama loves me most when I get good grades” or “Mama loves me less when I misbehave.”

Nicole R. | 9:35 am, November 2, 2007 | Link

 

I’m a fifth grade teacher.  I think adults praise children too much.  Kids receive accolades for almost anything.  After a while, the praise becomes meaningless.  For example, students receive “Artist of the Week” in art class but only if that student hasn’t had his or her turn.  What a joke…the kids know it, too!
Kids see through meaningless praise.  I make it a practice to praise the effort not the outcome.  I rarely remark about a kid’s intelligence…only the effort.  The self-esteem movement, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, has run its course.

Mike | 7:46 pm, December 18, 2007 | Link

 

This is a great topic & I’ve been trying to effort praise my one year old now for a month or so. I’m having a hard time with how to phrase the praise. I’m so used to ability-praise that I often can’t think of what to say… I end up just saying “Look at you!” or “You did it!” (in a warm and loving voice). I was wondering if you could provide more examples of effort-praise vs. ability-praise? Thanks!

Rebecca | 8:54 am, January 3, 2008 | Link

 

Alfie Kohn has some related suggestions in this article (http://www.alfiekohn.org/parenting/gj.htm).  He provides an additional perspective to help with how to think about praising.  (Though take it with a grain of salt — I think he’s too extreme, and that research shows that praise is more important than Kohn believes.)
I’m hoping that other readers will post specific suggestions for ways they effort praise, as well…

Christine Carter | 9:19 am, January 3, 2008 | Link

 

Alfie Kohn is too over the top for me.  He is a chicken little.  I think that if parents actually think for a minute and then honestly respond to their children instead of the “GOOD JOB!” then there might be some honest feedback for the kid, and they won’t get caught up in the praise thing.  But Alfie Kohn needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
Every child is different, and mine do well with honest evaluations of their abilities.  Of course we talk all the time about the value of hard work , and that hard work in the end matters as much as intelligence. 
But please don’t be afraid to tell your kids they are doing something well when they are–it will not harm them every once in awhile.

Laura | 6:43 pm, May 10, 2008 | Link

 

As a first grade teacher, I am very aware and deliberate about the words that I choose to say to my students. When I first began teaching, I had 30 six year olds in my classroom, all of them clamoring for my attention. It was faster and easier to say “what a beautiful picture” but it wasn’t until half through my first year of teaching that I started really LISTENING to myself and realized that all my praise sounded the same despite the fact that I had a huge variety of children in my room! Now, seven years later, I know better. When I do praise a child (there is nothing wrong with a little praise so long as it is sincere and specific), I always try to praise them on a specific point and I couch it in words of my observation of some sort of effort on their part. So instead of saying, “what a great artist you are,” I try to say “I noticed that the combination of colors you used made me feel ___.” 
Praising effort it also a great way to redirect unwanted behavior. So if a child is having a hard time sharing, next time I notice them asking for the crayon instead of just grabbing it from their table mate, it’s important to recognize positive behavior and effort right away with a “I noticed that you asked for Lee for the pencil and waited for his answer instead of grabbing it. Thank you for making that effort.” I know it sounds hokey as an adult, but believe me, it works wonders! In most children, you can actually see a slow behavioral change happening as they stop to think before they act just after commenting on their effort. Commenting on effort gives them the opportunity to change, or expand their knowledge or social interactions on their own. I’ve found it’s a way to pave a sense of independence and their own intrinsic motivation. Years ago, one of my colleagues sent around a NYT article on a study done by Columbia on the effect of praising intelligence instead of effort and self-defeating behavior. Here’s the address if anyone is interested: http://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/14/science/praise-children-for-effort-not-intelligence-study-says.html

Kim | 12:11 pm, August 10, 2009 | Link

 

Wonderful discussion.  Are there any differences in effective praise for older (pre-teen and teen) than for younger kids?  Someone made the comment that it is not bad for kids to hear that they did well (or mastered something) as long as it’s mixed with praise for making good efforts or for incremental progress.  I can imagine that helping them understand what mastery *is* (at least in cases where it’s clear) might be helpful in giving them a target to shoot for. I can also imagine that this issue may not kick in until a certain phase of school, and only for certain types of things.  Anybody have information/thoughts on this?  Thanks!

Susan Newman | 1:45 pm, August 24, 2009 | Link

 

I think we’ve mastered this (to a point that we don’t have to think about it all the time.) We comment on the act instead of the child, but we still get excited and cheer for accomplishments.
Practice and hard work are such a big deal that it’s a shame when the praise only comes for the end result. There are many more articles on this, one in the new york magazine too. I also loved “Becoming the Parent You Want to Be”‘s take on it.
I wrote a thing on it with links to the studies too a while ago at http://www.gluesky.com/2009/07/praise-acnowledgement-and-kids/

Vanessa | 8:43 pm, September 8, 2009 | Link

 
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