Interesting story in the NY Magazine this weekend about how praising kids harms and sometimes helps them. Much of the research about praise isn’t new to those of us to pay attention to such things, but for many people the reality of how praise can help and harm kids runs counter to what we’ve been taught to believe.
The first thing that researchers have discovered is that when we praise kids insincerely (ie giving everyone a medal for participation rather than for achievement), we lose a lot of credibility. The kids know they haven’t done anything special and view all praise as suspect. Which actually makes even genuine praise far less effective. Often kids will decide that the only messages which can be trusted are those which are critical. Which (as some of us have learned the hard way) can be a problem because not all criticism is accurate and often kids haven’t been taught how to deal productively with criticism anyway. So you get a kid who discounts anything good which is said to them while whole heartedly believing any negative message that comes their way. Not exactly what we want.
The other major finding is that praising a child for some sort of innate ability decreases motivation, self-confidence and performance. The reason is that if something is an innate ability, it comes naturally and with little effort. If this is the case, then putting forth effort is a sign that one is lacking in innate ability. Then when the child fails (due to lack of effort, of course) the message that is seen as a sign that the child lacks the innate ability to do something, so no effort will fix it anyways. When this cycle is in place even extraordinarily bright children become risk-adverse, under-perform and lacking in confidence.
There are three keys to making praise work. First, it must be sincere. Sometimes this is really easy like when your kid wins a prize. But other times, you need to look more closely for those things your child does which are valuable, but aren’t usually given a lot of attention. For example, if you take your child to the store and they hold the door open for people, say please and thank you, look people in the eye when they are spoken too, etc they can be praised for being polite and considerate. On the other hand, if your 12 year old brings you a drawing that isn’t very good and asks what you think of it, you need to resist the urge to say, “wow – that’s a great drawing honey!” Instead, just talk with them about the picture: “why did you choose those colors? What’s happening in this scene? What made you think of this?” Often, a kid will value the chance to have their work taken seriously enough to be discussed that they will walk away satisfied and motivated to keep working on their artwork. But, if they insist on a judgement – good or bad? – be honest without being discouraging. Something like, “I don’t think you’re ready to find a buyer for your art yet, but you have a good eye for color (or character or whatever) and I bet that if you apply yourself you will keep getting better. You may surprise yourself with what you can do!” Which actually leads us to the second point . . .
Praise should focus on effort and potential rather than innate ability. A child who is told “you’re smart/talented/likable/etc” without having put an effort into developing those skills will fall into the trap described above and not have real confidence in your praise or themselves. If your child brings home a good grade, instead of saying, “look how smart you are!”, they need to hear something like, ” it looks like all that hard work paid off. Good job.” I do believe that simply as a matter of self knowledge a child who has a particular talent or ability should be told that they have that ability. A smart kid should know that he is smarter than normal. A talented musician should know that they have an unusual aptitude. And so on. However, being smart or talented or pretty or whatever should not be introduced as a form of praise. A smart kid is no better than a kid who struggles to learn basic math. A pretty child has no more worth than an awkward child with unattractive features, etc. These are not things to praise a kid for, imo. Instead, they should be introduced as a form of self-knowledge and a way to encourage a child to apply themselves. In our house, a kid is never told that they are smart without it being connected to the fact that this creates an opportunity for their efforts to bear more fruit than most people have a chance to achieve in some areas. The ability isn’t praised – the effort and discipline needed for the ability to be worth anything is always the object of praise. Innate ability is neither earned or within our control. But effort and strong character are. Praise directed at that which takes effort rather than that which is not earned or controlled is encouraging and rewarding. In order to do this sort of praise effectively, we must look at the third facet of effective praise . . .
Praise needs to be specific. Many couple has been frustrated because the husband tells his wife “your beautiful” – perhaps with regularity – and yet the wife neither feels beautiful nor seems to believe the sincerity of the compliment. The wife may even completely befuddle her husband by claiming that he never compliments her! The problem is that “you’re beautiful” is a very broad, generic statement. It is one of those things which encompasses so much that it means very little. Instead, if the husband can to substitute compliments like, “Your hair is beautiful today./Those jeans make your butt look great./I love the way your eyes light up when you talk about something you care about./Your skin is so soft./etc” A husband who became adept at pointing out the specific details of what he finds beautiful about his wife will find that a handful of such compliments will have greater effect than saying “you’re beautiful” a million times. It’s just human nature. So if your kid plays soccer, compliment him on his hustling or passing ability or how he communicates with other players on the field rather than just saying, “you’re a great soccer player!” This creates confidence in the child that your praise is sincere. It also lets your kid know that you care enough to really pay attention, which means more to a child than any particular word of praise ever could.
Although research has found that the way praise is often done is actually harmful and counter-productive, I think it’s important that parents not decide to just give up on the idea of praise and building their child’s self-confidence altogether. Our children depend on us to show them who they are and part of this is pointing out the good parts. And our kids need our approval like they need air to breathe. If a child doesn’t believe that he has earned his parent’s approval – that they think well of him and see good things in him – then nothing anyone else says to them and nothing they accomplish will mean much. When a parent withholds praise, perhaps out of fear for breeding arrogance or because the child’s ability’s are not focused in areas the parent values, it can be crippling. If the world tells a kid that he is brilliant, but his father never does, he will just tell himself that the rest of the world is lying or foolish. Because if he really was brilliant, his father would have told him as well. So, let’s keep giving our kids the praise they need and earn. Let’s just do it the right way!