How to Praise Kids (Hint: We have been doing it wrong!)

Nov 01

How to Praise Kids (Hint: We have been doing it wrong!)
“You got a 95 on your math test! You are so smart!
“Look at that bridge Kyle built!  Isn’t he creative?” 


“Wow!  Lisa won the race!  I always knew she was fast!”


We tend to praise our children ad nauseum because we feel that it will develop their self-esteems.  But did anyone ever stop to think that we actually might be hurting them?  A recent blog in the New York times by Jenny Anderson reveals that all this praise is actually making our children less resilient and fearful of failure.  Anderson mentions the work of Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford researcher, who has been studying the subject of children’s coping and resilience mechanisms for 40 years.  For the last 14 she has focused on parental praise.  Dr. Dweck has found that praising kids for their qualities (you are so smart) as opposed to the process (you must have worked hard on that) has created children who were less likely to take  risks and face challenges.


Dr. Dweck sent four female research assistants into a fifth grade classroom.  The researchers had the children do an IQ test that consisted of a  series of easy puzzles.  As each child completed his group of puzzles the researcher would tell him his score and give him one line of praise: Her was either told “you must be smart” or he was praised for his effort “you must have worked hard at this”.


The children were then given a choice for their second IQ test.  They could either take a difficult test but they were told that they would learn a lot from it.  Or they could chose to take another simple test.  Of the group that were praised for their effort 90% chose to take the difficult test.  Of the group that were praised for being smart the majority chose the simple test.  When kids are praised for being smart they don’t want to risk looking stupid so they don’t take chances.


In the next round, nobody had a choice, the test was very difficult.  Everybody failed.  But interestingly enough the kids who were praised for their effort got very involved and many of them remarked that this was their favorite test.  Those that were praised for being smart were miserable.


The final round was as easy as the first round.  Those that had been praised for their effort improved their scores by 30%.  Those who had been praised for their intelligence lowered their scores by 20%.  Their response to failure caused them to do worse.


So what is the best way to praise kids?


Avoid labels.  Try not to label your child (you are so bright!  You are so pretty!  You are so strong!  You get the picture…) Focus on their efforts.  Wow look at that fort you built.  It must have taken a long time and a lot of planning to get it up! Or, I loved that dance recital.  You must have practiced very hard for it.


It takes some practice and ingenuity to get used to praising this way.  It’s not the most natural way of saying things.  But it will send your kids the message that they are doing great because they are working hard and that is really all that matters in the long run.


This is the article in the New York Magazine that described Dr. Dweck’s study in detail.  If you have the time it is well worth the read:

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  1. I know this to be true.

    My father praised me for being so smart and made a huge deal of my high grades and it only made me more afraid to fail.

    I am always careful to award the process and ask my girls what they learned or what was the most fun part of something etc.

  2. Love this article! The praising technique you describe here is so subtle, “Praise their efforts, don’t label them”, yet so important. The battle between praising them so they build a good self-esteem, vs over-praising them, so they become over-confident & less resilient. Will definitely follow this with my kids.


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