Parents Beware of Praise

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By Nancy Carnevale, Principal at Milford Central Academy

As parents we’ve been told to praise our children often. Praise boosts self-esteem, motivation and overall well-being. So, how can praise be harmful? Recently there has been a lot of brain research conducted – studying both the physical and psychological aspects of learning. One of the researchers studying the psychological aspects of how our brains learn is Dr. Carol Dweck. She and her team have studied the effects of praise on students and found amazing results. One of her studies was described in a recent New York Times article entitled, “How Not to Talk to Your Kids” by Po Bronson.

In this study, Dweck and her research team studied 400 students in 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.” (Retrieved from http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/)

The researchers then gave students a choice for the second test, students could chose a harder test and were told it would help them learn a lot, or an easier test. 90 percent of the students praised for effort chose the harder set of puzzles. A majority of the students praised for being smart chose the easy test. For the last round of testing, the researchers then gave all the fifth-graders a final round of tests that were designed to be as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort greatly 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. (Retrieved from http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/)

Dweck repeated her experiments in many different settings, with many different types of children. She found that this phenomenon happened across all socioeconomic levels, with boys, girls, and all ages – even as young as kindergarten. What this and other studies have shown is when we emphasize effort; children see this as something they can control. When they fail they recognize it as a lack of effort or that more effort should help them succeed. These children will develop a “Growth Mindset”. On the other hand when we simply say they are smart – children see this as an innate ability, something you are born with or without. When they fail they see this as a sign that they are not smart enough and usually end up quitting. These children will develop a “Fixed Mindset”.

What does this mean for parents? It means that the type of praise you offer your children really does matter. In order for praise to be effective it has to be specific and focus on the effort they have put forth, be sincere – kids of all ages can tell when it’s not real, be earned – over praising children when they have not put forth effort will backfire and focus on the process – rather than praising kids for winning the game, praise them for the way they consistently defended the goal or how they continued to work on the difficult math problem.

Overall praise can be a very powerful motivator when used appropriately. Unfortunately it can also cause children to quit and give up. For more information about praise and developing a Growth Mindset in ourselves and our children please consider the following sources:

NY Times Article: “How Not to Talk to Your Kids” at http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/
MindSet Works – a website devoted to Carol Dweck’s work and Growth Mindset at http://www.mindsetworks.com
Mindset Website – information on adult mindsets and how to change mindsets at http://mindsetonline.com

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