The right and wrong way to praise your children

Could it be that parents needn’t worry so much about making sure their kids feel special and wonderful all the time?

Could it be that parents needn’t worry so much about making sure their kids feel special and wonderful all the time? Photo: Getty

We all know the type (particularly those of us who are deliberately barren). Little Olivia, Mason or Noah, the child prodigy who can do no wrong.

“How clever you are!” their parents exclaim*, at the slightest illegible scribble or mispronounced syllable.

This obsession with praise seems to have extended into our adulthood: criticism has become completely unbearable.

The slightest disagreements are answered with “it’s just my opinion”, as if the very fact of the speaker having a thought is enough to make it impervious to criticism.

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Sensitively tippy-toeing over a disagreement with someone so as to ensure they don’t think you are undermining their very being seems entirely expected as well.

Researchers have long suspected that a parent’s instinct their child must be the smartest, most interesting and inherently adorable person on the face of the planet might not always turn out so well for the kid.

It turns out that little Caleb, Ella and Abigail might need a little bit more tough and a little bit less love when it comes to the way they are praised.

Researchers from the University of Illinois have done a neat study, for the first time looking at how parental praise given day-to-day affects the long-term goals of their children.

They did a set of daily interviews with 120 mums**, asking them how they responded to their children’s successes in school.

It turns out that the most common type of praise the parents gave is what is known as “person praise”, that is, telling they kid they are clever or good, or any other number of wonderful things.

Less common was the “process praise”, that is, praising how hard they worked or talking about how much they must enjoy doing their work.

And a funny thing happened to the kids who were constantly told how wonderful they were, rather than how wonderfully they were working: they stopped wanting to work so hard.

The researchers also interviewed the kids before and after the study about what they thought of intelligence – asking them to rate statements like “How smart you are is something you cannot change very much” – and also how much they liked to be challenged at school.

It turns out the kids who received the most “person praise” actually seemed to shift their beliefs about intelligence over the course of the study, and how hard they wanted to work.

They started thinking that academic success was just something you had, rather than something you work towards. Inherently smart kids, as these tweens understood things, just don’t need to try so hard.

(Although, I’m not sure it’s just a tween thing… I’m pretty sure I know quite a few adults who have that attitude).

“Children of the age participating in the current research often view ability and effort as inversely related,” the researchers wrote in the journal Developmental Psychology.

The bad news was that “process praise” didn’t seem to be protective of the kids, something that hasn’t always been found in other research.

Perhaps the answer is that parents needn’t worry so much about making sure their kids feel special and wonderful all the time.

And maybe us grown-ups, too, can relax a bit and embrace some personal failure, criticism and disagreement. I might be disagreeing with you, but really I'm only making you stronger! 

*Actually, I am completely guilty of this with every child I meet… little did I know I was secretly undermining them this whole time.

** Note, this study was really only of European American mothers, who were highly educated. Who knows the effect of “person praise” on kids from other backgrounds.

29 comments

  • An interesting piece. A similar study conducted by Dweck in 1998 where N = 400 11 yo were given a series of simple puzzles. Two thirds of those who were praised as ' clever' and 'smart' did not want to try the tougher puzzle. 90% of the group who were told ' you must have worked really hard' were keen to try the more challenging task.
    'Smart ' was scared of losing their 'intelligence' label. 'Work hard' was wanted to explore a challenge and prove how hard working they are. After more tasks, the experiment went full circle and all children completed a test of equal difficulty to the first simple test. The
    ' smart' group showed a 20% decline in performance whilst the
    ' worked hard' group increased their score by 30%!
    This was repeated 3 times across a range of locations and ethnicities.
    Carol Dweck concluded : praising children's intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.
    How often do we love hearing about success due to talent, intelligence and giftedness? Success through application, sacrifice and determination just does not resonate or inspire most of our population. Or sell papers, books or screenplays :-)

    Commenter
    Nietzy
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    February 21, 2013, 9:01AM
    • Great advice. Though luckily my kids are just so naturally gifted, intelligent and perfect that it doesn't apply to me.

      Commenter
      Northern Dan
      Date and time
      February 21, 2013, 2:46PM
    • +1 I was going to suggest looking up Carol Dweck, too. And Alfie Kohn.

      Commenter
      Jess
      Date and time
      February 21, 2013, 2:48PM
  • Amy I'm not sure your conclusion is at all supported the the rest of the article.

    It's interesting to know that praise may not be as protective or beneficial as some of us think, but you can't draw any conclusion about disagreement or criticism from that. It certainly doesn't invalidate the research that shows criticism and disagreement isn't good either - we could easily be living in a world where both criticism and praise are bad. Maybe we're just damned either way :)

    Commenter
    kindsight
    Date and time
    February 21, 2013, 9:19AM
    • It's not about being critical, it's about praising work ethic and effort.

      Rather than giving empty praise such as "you are so smart!".

      Commenter
      praise effort and hard work
      Date and time
      February 21, 2013, 9:38AM
    • Or maybe it's just that kids, like the rest of the population, are unique individuals and there's no "one size fits all" approach. We should probably stop generalizing and start seeing raising kids in a case-by-case basis.

      Commenter
      Urabrask the Hidden
      Date and time
      February 21, 2013, 9:52AM
    • Urabrask +1000

      Commenter
      Dhammachick
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      February 21, 2013, 11:40AM
  • You linked to the abstract!!! Amy Corderoy, you are now officially the greatest journalist of the modern age!

    There have been some cool studies to show that more-specific praise (and criticism) works way better than general stuff - and I think all parents should be really careful with phrases that tell a kid what they are. For example, my boys are well aware of how bad it is to *be* a bully - and that makes it far more effective when I tell them "you are acting like a bully". It's important that they know (or think they know) that they are *not* bullies, and that their behaviour goes against what they are. Their self-image tells them that they should not act in that way. Just as you shouldn't say "you *are* messy", but rather say "you're *being* messy". It makes a big difference, in my experience (and according to the research).

    It's way easier to change what you do, than to change what you are.

    An important part of praise is that it's important to constantly look for good opportunities to give it meaningfully. Not all the time, it's got to be specific, but unless you've got a positive relationship with your kid, there's nothing to withdraw when they're in trouble. They need to know you have a good opinion of them - not just to make them feel like unique snowflakes, but so that they can feel the loss when you are disappointed in them. Who wants to please a parent who only criticises? And if you only get attention when you're "bad", well what's the point of being "good"?

    Praise is the other side of criticism. I don't think either works alone.

    Commenter
    Magpie
    Date and time
    February 21, 2013, 9:54AM
    • I suppose I come from a different era as far as parenting goes, or maybe it was the way I was brought up. With my own three sons I always focused on what it was they were good at and gave feedback to help where they were not so savvy, and it was always along the lines of encouragement, as in the examples quoted in the above study rather than tell them what little clever clogs they were. And it does work. My boys are all really good at different things, both in academia and in their chosen careers.
      I trained as a teacher in later life and was absolutely amazed at how students would feel that they were masters of something because they got something right, but when it came to testing them on what they had learned and, more importantly, retained on a subject, many did appallingly. Chances were they were parented by the "aren't you clever/beautiful/wonderful" brigade. This lot would not extend themselves in a pink fit. It was curious that the students who were most likely to be (sadly) more likely to have disinterested parents who would do better because they got great feedback from me on their efforts as well as encouragement. These kids were the ones most likely to be considered underachievers by their peers and it was hard to gauge where this came from, because these were the kids of parents who avoided parent/teacher interaction.
      Of course, this is only my observation and not scientifically based, but it always made me think about the different students and guess at their parents style.

      Commenter
      Mum of 3 / gran of 4
      Date and time
      February 21, 2013, 10:27AM
  • In your comment-bait opening you seem to be conflating the goo-goo excitement of scribbles and syllables of toddlers and early schoolers with tweens. Whilst a parent might encourage a child's drawing or talking by giving them praise in the hope they continue trying, tweens are a completely separate thing. It's hard to give uncritical praise once they're in school and bringing back report cards with C's or whatever. Tweens are where they start not wanting to be seen with you and get far more annoying as they're lmost two thirds of the way out of the nest and parents are far less goo goo over their every utterance.
    Also why would being deliberately barren make you better at seeing the prince and princesses? Unless you're expressing some subconscious jealousy you'll find that parents are more bitchy about how other parents raise their little einsteins and probably more capable of noticing this, given they're spending most of their life actively trying to parent and note what other people are doing the same way the couples doing renovations spend a whole lot more time looking at their friend's bathrooms and kitchens.

    Oh well I guess you had to give the study some colour and make it interesting.

    Commenter
    andrewb
    Date and time
    February 21, 2013, 10:04AM

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