I don’t often get into neuro-parenting here, but I thought this particular research finding was interesting enough to single out. (I mentioned it in my Managing by Mistakes post last week, too.)

The short story is that a lot of what parents and teachers think about praising children and building self-esteem is dead wrong. Well-intended ego boosting can actually cause the child to perform more poorly in school. First, if you habitually praise your kids, you aren’t alone:

According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart. In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short. [From New York Magazine – How Not to Talk to Your Kids by Po Bronson.]

Research conducted at Columbia University by Carol Dweck (now at Stanford) shows that such praise can have the opposite of the intended effect:

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.”

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.

Two more stages of testing provided this startling finding:

Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20 percent.

The article describes other fascinating findings, including how applying the “praise for effort” principle markedly improved performance in classrooms of mostly under-achieving minority students.

The takeaway is simple – it’s much better to praise effort than innate ability. I don’t think that an occasional comment that a kid is smart or “a natural” will scar them for life, but the general theme of praise should focus on how effort, and learning from mistakes, is the reason for success. That’s what REALLY motivates kids keep learning and improving.

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