For kids, not all praise is good praise

Family playing and praising children.
Try to praise children for their efforts, not for their abilities.

In last week's Southern Star, I explored why when it comes to children, effort-based praise is better than personal praise. The column is reproduced below.


It’s important to praise children but be careful – sometimes, the wrong type of praise can backfire.


Psychological studies show praising children for their effort, for example, is very different to praising children for their intelligence. In one important study, a group of children were given some relatively easy puzzles to solve. After the test, they were divided into two groups. The kids in the first group were praised for their intelligence, and were told ‘You must be smart at this’. In contrast, the children in the second group were praised for their effort: ‘You must have worked really hard’. 


After, the students had to undertake another test, but they were given a choice. They could do another easy test, just like the first one. Alternatively, they could choose a more difficult test, with the researchers telling them they could learn a lot from attempting the puzzles.


What happened next is revealing. Among students praised for their effort, almost all – 90 per cent – chose the difficult test. In contrast, a majority of children who were praised for being smart chose to do the easy test.


As the author noted; ‘When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game. Look smart, don't risk making mistakes’. That’s exactly what those young students opted to do – they chose the easy option, so that they would not run the risk of losing their status of “being smart” (continued below...)




Similar results were found in follow-up tests conducted by the same researchers. In a subsequent round, all children were asked to undertake a very difficult test. Again, the two groups responded very differently. The children praised for their effort were very willing participants. They tried hard to come up with different solutions and enjoyed the task. The kids who were told they were smart, however, were stressed and unhappy as they grappled with the tricky questions. 


In another, final test, all students were again given some relatively easy puzzles to solve, similar to those answered in the first round. Those praised for their effort did significantly better than they did in the first round, improving their average score by about 30 per cent. The children praised for being smart, in contrast, did much worse – their scores were about 20 per cent lower than in the first round.


All of us – adults and especially children – respond to praise. We feel good when we’re praised. However, when you praise a child for being smart, they automatically infer it’s important to be smart. That brings its own pressures. If good test scores = being smart, then less good scores = not smart. That’s frightening for children who’ve been (perhaps unintentionally) led to believe that being smart is the be all and end all. 


Other studies confirm that praising children for their abilities, as opposed to the effort they make, brings obvious downsides. Children are more likely to focus on performance rather than on learning. They are less likely to persist at difficult tasks and less likely to enjoy them. They are also more likely to cheat, so afraid are they of losing their “smart” label.


Now, I don’t want anyone to think I’m recommending they hold back on praising their kids. Praise is hugely important. All too often, children get their parents’ attention by misbehaving, whereas the “good” things kids do are ignored or taken for granted. Don’t make this mistake. Instead, make sure to notice the everyday little efforts and give them the praise they deserve, whether it be verbal (“Thanks for helping your little brother”) or non-verbal (a smile, a pat on the head, etc). Essentially, you want to “catch them being good”.


However, remember that not all praise is good praise. Praising a child for their efforts is one thing; praising them for apparently inherent abilities is another. 'The most threatening aspect of praise is the obligation it puts on us to be praise-worthy people', to quote psychologist and educator Richard Farson. 'For if we really believe it when we are told that we are competent, or intelligent, or beautiful, then we are continually on the spot to be competent, or intelligent, or beautiful.'