How To Praise Your Child


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.

  1. greg says

    While I can’t remember the source (and am a little too lazy right now to Google it) I’ve read that the demographic that routinely scores high(est) in self esteem tests is (cue the drum roll …) prisoners.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Here’s one reference on that topic, Greg: Extreme self-esteem, presumably, breeds narcissistic behavior and reduces the concern for the emotions and well-being of others.

      Having said that, I don’t think telling your kid she is smart will launch her on a life of crime. 🙂

      What the research does show, in my opinion, is that teachers who praise kids for incorrect work without mentioning that it is wrong deprive those kids of the opportunity to learn and improve from their mistakes. The research suggests that studying one’s own errors is a major key to continued improvement.


  2. Dennis Van Staalduinen says

    This is a great bit of counter-intuitive truth (or at least counter-intuitive to parents and marketers of my generation).

    Whether in business or parenting, we are conditioned to be positive, energetic and always affirming (At Company X, we’re the greenest / most efficient / largest! Yay us!). But affirmation without acknowledgement of human effort leads to a sense of lazy entitlement.

  3. Yura says

    It looks fine, in theory.

    But in school, when you are judged by certain parameters (i.e., task solved or not), are you sure it’s the effort that’s necessary? Why not just the correctness of the task?

    For example, in school, I could do English exercises easily. But I was given Ds for an exercise with a few mistakes. A hard working student that spent evenings on exercises used to get As for the same or worse quality of the exercises. Now, would you praise effort in that case without recognizing the effort of the other student? Or you’d have to praise both of the students, but for various reasons?

    But I agree, telling students that they are smart for no reason (or silly reason) is not smart.

  4. K3Teachers says

    Interesting read – we were just talking about this the other day. Basically – the effort/ process needs to be praised – the outcome/score acknowledged and used only to move forward to the next effort/process. Unfortunately we are breeding a society where feelings of success equals ‘outcomes’ ‘products’ ‘things’ ‘test scores’ – feelings of success need to come from building upon your last effort/process.

  5. Bill Rusin says

    Dweck’s work has been well known (and largely ignored) by educators for years. I think that she has some excellent points to make, and backed u by lots of research. There is a well known concept that says “the more you reward someone for doing a task, the less interest they have in it”! (They become more interested in the reward rather than the task). This seems to be counter intuitive, but when thought about makes a lot of sense. The relationship between encouragement and praise (though artificial perhaps)is worth thinking through. Things that encourage (give courage to continue to go forward/improve) is often very different, and work against each other.
    School teachers often, understandably. look for short term gain, like initial compliance, or even an ability to manipulate, rather than looing for long term gains.

  6. Jane Love says

    Effort deserves to be praised more than intelligence. That’s because every child is intelligent in their own way but not EVERY child makes an EFFORT to us it to the best of their potential.
    Praise can spur unto success or failure – depending on how it is used.
    Great piece. And love the detailed research

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