Blanketing children with praise, seems like a natural step toward building independent, confident kids. But praise may actually produce results in our children that are opposite our intentions, according to an article in New York Magazine (How Not to Talk to Your Kids).
According to the article, praising children based on intelligence (“You are so smart“) implies innate ability separate from effort or progress. Some of the studies cited in the article found that children who were praised in this manner were more likely to be risk-averse. Seeing their “smartness” as a definition of who they were, a characteristic they had little control over, they had a stronger desire to preserve that image of “smartness”, than to put it to the test with a challenge. They were eager to display competence, rather than to learn something new.
Conversely, children who were encouraged with comments about their effort, their tenacity, or their focus were more likely to recognize the skills that they had put to use and were apt to take on more challenges and apply those skills again.
The article further examines praise addiction, the interplay of self-esteem and praise, as well as the efficacy of directly teaching kids to take on challenges in education.
I would strongly recommend the article to parents and teachers, and feel it gives some interesting and applicable research-based information. For those left worried about how to appropriately encourage positive behavior without turning their kids (or themselves) into praise junkies, here are a few guidelines:
Make it specific and sincere. Kids can spot generic, hollow praise. Whenever you catch yourself using a generic form of praise (“Good job!”) think of it as a buzzer, reminding you to add a more specific description (“You really worked hard at that puzzle and didn’t quit, even when it was hard!”).
Describe an action. Overemphasizing qualities gives children the message that they have little control over this trait. They are either smart or not, they are kind or not. Describing the action helps them to know how to repeat the behavior and reinforces the aspect of choice in their behavior. (“Thank you for showing good listening by sitting with your eyes on me, your bodies still, and your mouths quiet!” vs. “Thanks for being so good!”) Think less in terms of praise and more in terms of encouragement. What skills and actions do you want to encourage? Describe them with action words. These words act as cues to the child’s brain.
Recognize effort . Focusing too much on the end product becomes judgement rather than encouragement. Recognizing the effort someone is putting into things, the amount of time they really engage, or the way they rebound from set-backs helps to promote resiliency and work ethic rather than generating stress based on outcomes they may not be able to control (ie winning a prize or competition). As the article mentions, children who were wrapped up in outcome-based praise were more likely to cheat than those who were buoyed up by process-based encouragement, which makes sense if you consider that the emphasis is on what they accomplish, not on how they got there. This doesn’t mean we should dole out watered-down praise for half-hearted effort (see point #1), but we should recognize true effort and hard work, even when it doesn’t produce the “win”.
Get their input. Praise often fills a natural need for external approval, but it sometimes creates an addiction to people-pleasing. In an attempt to feed a positive self-concept, we unintentionally create a self-concept that is predicated on the opinions of others. Instead of always projecting your own perceptions, ask children what they think of their effort, of their work, or of their behavior. Sometimes you’d be surprised at what you can both learn from their introspection.
Some things are unconditional. It’s easy to become a praise-junkie when we are simply trying to create a positive atmosphere and help kids to recognize how wonderful we think they are. We want to build up their positive self-image and steady them against those hard days in life. But instead of over-doing the messages of praise, we can build that self-esteem and security by giving them messages of love that are not conditional upon their labels. Let them know that you love them not because they are “smart”, but because they are yours.
What do you think? How do you focus on encouragement rather than praise with the children you love and teach? How do you encourage them to do their best, yet reinforce that your love is not a performance-based reward?
Top photo by Christie Merrill.