If you’re like most parents, you’ve probably uttered at least one of these statements more than once:
“I love your painting! You’re such an artist!”
“Wow, you go an A in science! You’re my little Einstein!”
“You’re such a natural! You’re the best player in your team!”
Most parents never think twice about praising their children. If they think about praise at all, many believe that praise boosts children’s self-esteem and drives them to perform better. It almost never occurs to parents that praise can be harmful. In fact, it seems downright counterintuitive to think that praise can hamper a child’s emotional development and future success.
But according to psychologists, that is exactly what praise can do. In a series of groundbreaking studies, developmental psychologist Carol Dweck found that constant praise does not improve children’s intelligence and does not help them learn better. In fact, she also found that children who are always told how smart they are tend to perform worse than those who are not constantly praised. These children tend to be more sensitive to failure, are less likely to take risks, and are less likely to persevere when faced with a setback.
Dweck’s research, which was conducted with hundreds of children from various socioeconomic backgrounds, showed that praise isn’t always a gift. When parents, teachers, mentors, and coaches tell children that they are smart or brilliant, they unintentionally teach them that they are valued for being intelligent or naturally gifted, which may lead them to believe that they don’t need to study or practice harder. They may also come to fear being labeled “dumb.” This then makes them fearful of taking risks. They start avoiding challenges that test their abilities. They may also come to believe that studying is something that only “dumb” kids have to do or that practicing is only for those with no natural ability for a sport.
So how does one praise a child the right way? (Yes, there is such a thing.) How does one praise children in a way that helps their emotional growth? How does one avoid raising a praise junkie?
Words of encouragement such as “Good job!” and “You’re so brilliant!” are too broad and eventually lose their meaning. Instead of saying “You’re so creative!” try complimenting a child’s use of color combinations. Instead of saying, “You’re so good at math!” try praising a child’s understanding of fractions or how hard he or she has been studying. Praise effort, strategy, and concentration, not intelligence and natural ability.
Be careful about labeling yourself (“Why can’t I get these figures right? I’m hopeless at math!”) and others (“Look at David’s drawing. He sure is no Picasso!”). When you say things like this, you are inadvertently sending the message that there are certain qualities (e.g. intelligence, artistic ability) that cannot be changed or improved on. This is the exact opposite of what a child needs to learn.
Drop the guilt
Many parents think that praise protects their children from feeling bad about failure (“It’s okay that you got second place! You’re still the smartest kid I know!”), but the coddling often detracts from the golden learning opportunities opened up by loss and other hurdles. In these instances, children need to learn to handle difficulties and figure out ways to improve. Shielding them from disappointment doesn’t help. Instead remind them that “without second place there wouldn’t be a first!” By focusing on the fact that they didn’t “Lose” but came in second, let’s them realize that winning is not the main point; learning is. Use the opportunity to help them realize where they could improve and help them push themselves towards greatness on their own.