Surprising research about praise

What a great job you did!

You aced this test, you are so smart!

The home run you hit saved the day!  You are the best hitter on the team!

In this age of positivism, affirmations and intentions, what could possibly be wrong with praising a child?  Turns out a lot… but the problem isn’t exactly praise.  The problem is the type of praise, what we are focusing on and the perception that it creates in the child.  The consequences of praise are reported in Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: the New Psychology of Success and I guarantee that it will change forever how you interact with the children in your life.

Here’s what she discovered:

  • When we praise children for their ability (great job, intelligence, athletic ability etc) we set them up for a fixed mindset.  They believe that they accomplished something great because of their inherent ability and the next time they are faced with a challenge, they feel they must perform equally well.  Consequently they are always concerned about perfect performance and measuring up.  They often lack confidence and shy away from situations that are hard because they are afraid of exposing their deficits and calling into question their talent or ability.
  • When we praise children for their effort, we set them up for a growth mindset. They believe that they accomplished something because of their effort and the next time they are faced with a challenge, they are open to seeing it as an opportunity to learn and to grow.  Whether they are successful or not, they are willing to take action and learn from the results.  Here are some examples:
    • This report is amazing.  I can tell you put in a lot of time in research.
    • You made an A on the test!  I can tell you really studied hard.
    • Your home run saved the day.  Looks like all that time practicing paid off.

What does this mean for parents and educators?

For most of us it means that we need to make a shift from focusing on labeling children, even with positive labels like gifted, smart or talented.  Labels and praising kids for their ability has been clearly shown in Dweck’s research to handicap the child for the future by creating a fixed mindset.  On the other hand, praise that identifies effort and specific methods of being successful, creates a growth mindset and prepares children for the many challenges and new situations they will face.  It is the equivalent of inoculating children for the inevitable disappointments they will encounter while providing the confidence to move forward with new challenges.

Related posts:

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