“The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids”

How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise.

A Feature in the The New York Times, By Po Bronson.

Thanks to Kris from Wandering Ink who sent me this link.

I will let the article speak for itself:

Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Later, when given a much more difficult test, these results were magnified. It really is worth reading the whole article, but here is a key point about the research above:

Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

More food for thought from the article:

Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, a pioneer in the field, conducted a series of studies where children watched other students receive praise. According to Meyer’s findings, by the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well—it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism—not praise at all—that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude.

In the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, a teacher who praises a child may be unwittingly sending the message that the student reached the limit of his innate ability, while a teacher who criticizes a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further.

In a nutshell, praise effort rather than intelligence. The article goes on to mention the value this has on developing persistence when faced with failure, while praising intelligence increases the stress and reduces the desire to face such challenges.

I will be thinking about this a lot over the next few days both at school with my students and at home with my own kids.

- – - – -

Po Bronson’s blog, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids” Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. From Part 4:

“A common praise technique that people use (I know I did it with my tutoring kids… up til a few weeks ago, that is….) is to use a present success to control future performance. For example, if a typically-sloppy child writes an essay that’s atypically legible, a parent or teacher may say, “That’s very neat: you should write all of your papers like this.” Even if it’s meant as sincere praise and encouragement, the research shows that’s not only an ineffective way to praise. In fact, like praising for intelligence – it can actually damage a child’s performance.

Here’s what is going on…”

Originally posted: February 13th, 2007

Reflection upon re-reading and re-posting:

Last year I cleaned up this post (just used the text, and no reference/sidebar of my blog), and sent this to staff via e-mail. I’ve never been thanked so much for passing on information!

On a more personal note, my wife and I struggle with this, especially when our kids come home feeling proud about what they did/created. A year later I can tell you that this approach takes practice. Part of the difficulty is that praise of intelligence and ability so pervasive in our society… it is almost expected.

“Daddy look what I made!”

‘Wow, look at the detail on that, you really put a great effort into it, didn’t you?’

“Yes. Do you like it?”

About David Truss

Home: DavidTruss.com Blog: Pair-a-Dimes for Your Thoughts (RSS) Podcasts: Podcasting Pair-a-Dimes (RSS) Connect: Contact David TrussGoogle+ Even more About Me: Who am I? A husband, a parent... An educator, a student... A thinker, a dreamer... An agent of change. ~Think Good Thoughts, Say Good Words, Do Good Deeds~
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2 Responses to “The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids”

  1. Vivian says:

    Thanks for pointing me towards this blogpost.

    I think the students that were praised for being smart were afraid that if they immediately failed in front of the testers, that it would be embarrassing. It would be embarrassing for them (They’re no longer as smart as the tester thought.). It would be “embarrassing” for the tester as this would show that the tester’s initial testing was flawed and the student didn’t want to embarrass the tester…

    I try to not give token praise or general praise. I try to discover something unique to say about their work (and not their character), so it shows that I am sincere. I want them to know that I esteem their character all the time, regardless of how they do. Now, I know I can praise for their effort too. Thanks!

    Our school took away the honour roll system because it was undermining the motivation of those not on the honour roll. Now, the school recognizes students for their effort. The school’s reasons are the same as discussed in this blogpost. :) It’s good to hear it again, as it’s a valuable message.

    I’m trying to do better with my own children too.

    I wonder where our fear of failure comes from? Was it built into us, or did we learn it?
    ** See what Vivian has been up to… Subject Integration in a Trans-Disciplinary Framework (PYP) & the Role of Collaboration

  2. Vivian says:

    This isn’t directly related, but it’s one of my favourite web articles. It’s entitled “An A+ Student Regrets his Grades” http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/an-a-student-regrets-his-grades/article7359620/

    Since I’m talking about favourite web articles, here’s another about how a Professor allowed his students to take a midterm test anyway they wanted: http://blogs.kcrw.com/whichwayla/2013/04/cheating-to-learn-how-a-ucla-professor-gamed-a-game-theory-midterm

    Hope all is well on the other side of the pond. :)

    ~Vivian
    ** See what Vivian has been up to… SAMR I am!

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