Praising Success Limits Improvement

The consequences of praising (academic) success over learning were underscored recently by a student who complained about a professor’s rigorous grading standard (edited in an effort to protect the innocent):

In many classes where the average falls to around a B-, which is not a bad grade, most professors would then make a B- correspond to a B+ when actually recorded.

The student wasn’t disputing the accuracy of the grade or accusing the professor of capricious behavior. Instead, the student was clear:

  • The course material was difficult.
  • The student had earned a B-, a fair and reasonable grade.
  • The student assumed the class average was a B-.[1]
  • The student expected the professor to raise the average from B- to B+.

The student and professor were at something of an impasse: the professor, apparently, was unwilling to raise the average while the student was unwilling to figure out how to improve. The student gave up an opportunity to learn, to improve, and instead opted to take the course pass-fail, “to make success binary, because I was very unlikely to fail.”

Getting better at something is not a process for the faint hearted. It requires, inter alia, humility, hard work, honesty, perseverance, and a desire to improve. If we want our children to improve, we need to instill these values and habits, which are as important in the classroom as they are on the sports field (or court or pool or diamond or whatever). By praising their successes, we privilege and reward the result over the habits of mind and practices that ultimately generate success. Given our tendency to reward grades, it is no surprise to see students fixate on things like good grades.

Throwing participation trophies at them, a version of cheering for average, is not a solution. As Ashley Merryman pointed out in “Losing is good for you,” it takes more than attendance to succeed.[2] Yet, according to Jean Twenge (quoted in Merryman’s piece) college students increasingly think showing up is enough:

Having studied recent increases in narcissism and entitlement among college students, she [Twenge] warns that when living rooms are filled with participation trophies, it’s part of a larger cultural message: to succeed, you just have to show up. In college, those who’ve grown up receiving endless awards do the requisite work, but don’t see the need to do it well.

We need to give kids the opportunity to lose and to fail. We need to support them when they do. We need to encourage them when they try and try and try again. But if we want to prepare kids for successful lives, we need to give them the opportunity to fail, both modestly and spectacularly.

On the one hand, only by failing (or at least not succeeding) do we improve, for success masks weakness. On the other hand, people fail (lose) more often than they succeed (win), especially successful people: “Winners lose more than losers do.”

In 2014 I resolve to encourage failure, to foster engagement, to model perseverance, and to reward improvement.


  1. The student admitted to this assumption—grades are not public knowledge at the school.  ↩

  2. For an interesting take on Merryman’s piece, see Learning to Lose, which includes this apt comment: “winning and losing are peripheral to learning.”  ↩

The Folly of Misdirected Praise

Children don’t lack praise. Parents seem to fawn over every piece of “art” or fragment of “poetry.” Teachers reward run-of-the-mill academic accomplishments with gold stars; schools elevate students into the ranks of “Honor Roll” or “Student of the Month” (and parents plaster “My child was Student of the Month” or “Proud Parent of an Honor Roll Student” bumper stickers across the back of their cars). Coaches reward middling athletic prowess. All this praise, it seems, is intended to foster confidence in children. Unfortunately, misdirected praise seems to be harming children more than helping them.

Praise is a tricky thing. On the one hand, when our children try and fail, we often find something to praise their work in an effort to make them feel better. When they succeed, we tend to reward that success in the hopes of helping them build confidence. On the other hand, we shouldn’t artificially inflate their sense of accomplishment. The problem lies, it seems, in what we praise.

By praising the product—the poem, the drawing, the grade, the goal—we emphasize (and reward) intelligence and ability rather than the habits that lead to success, such as tenacity, creativity, motivation, and resilience.[1] Privileging and praising children’s successes contributes to future anxiety and failure, when they run into something they can’t quickly master.[2] By adjusting what we praise, however, we can help our children develop the confidence and resources they will need to succeed.

The Perils and Promises of Praise” summarizes research that underscores the importance of process-oriented praise.[3] Psychologists found that when students encountered challenging problems:

… As a group, students who had been praised for their intelligence lost their confidence in their ability and their enjoyment of the task as soon as they began to struggle with the problem. If success meant they were smart, then struggling meant they were not. The whole point of intelligence praise is to boost confidence and motivation, but both were gone in a flash. Only the effort-praised kids remained, on the whole, confident and eager.

When the problems were made somewhat easier again, students praised for intelligence did poorly, having lost their confidence and motivation. As a group, they did worse than they had done initially on these same types of problems. The students praised for effort showed excellent performance and continued to improve.

Instead of building confidence, praising our children’s good grade, good performance, good goal will, in the end, undermine that confidence.

My not-so-impressive Monkey Fist knot.

My not-so-impressive Monkey Fist knot.

Recently, #1 and I were sitting at the table tying knots. #1 was struggling with the dreaded Monkey Fist (see here for another version). As much as I wanted to help out and to praise his initial knot (which was not particularly praiseworthy), I kept my mouth shut, though I did mention that I had initially struggled to tie one. At one point, frustration got the best of him, so he took a break on the couch. A few minutes later, he quietly returned and started working on it again. This time, things turned out better but not great. For the next hour he tied, untied, and retied his knot until finally he produced a nice, uniform knot. He showed me. He showed The Mother. He showed #2 and asked her if she wanted one. He eagerly sat down and tied another one for her. In the end I praised his resilience, his tenacity, and his skillfully-tied knot.

Whatever my praise might have meant, equally important was #1’s boost in confidence from having figured out how to overcome a challenge. That’s why I
don’t praise average or excellence, but resourceful tenacity.


  1. Trite circumlocutions such as “good job” or “nice effort” don’t really avoid this problem.  ↩

  2. Anecdotally: I see this every semester when students who have always received good grades, have been told they are smart, and have scored well on standardized tests suddenly find themselves struggling to master a new intellectual task. These students give up when they don’t perform at the level they think they should.  ↩

  3. I have not read Carol Dweck’s Mindset, which is the basis for her article. She has, as does everybody, a website for her book: Mindset  ↩

Some Dads do Diapers and …

News sites across the U.S. have picked up Lindsey Tanner’s AP article “Dads do Diapers and More, Myth Busting Survey Says,”[1] which summarizes recent National Center for Health Statistics. Unfortunately, Tanner’s summary does not link to the original survey, which provides interesting additional information about methods and other results that Tanner did not include: Fathers’ Involvement With Their Children: United States, 2006–2010. The survey’s results are not as “myth busting” as we might hope.

The survey polled fathers living with and apart from their children and asked about two groups of children, under 5 and 5–18. According to the survey, of fathers living with their children engaged in the following daily activities:

  • Transport to/from activities: 20% (with children 5–18).
  • Read: 29% (with children under 5).[2]
  • Help with homework: 30% helped their children with homework daily (for children over 5).
  • Bathe, diaper, dress: 58% (with children under 5).
  • Eat: 71% (with children under 5); 66% (with children between 5–18) (perhaps not coincidentally, 65% of these fathers talked with their children about their day).
  • Play: 81% (w/ children under 5); .
Father involvement survey not all that surprising.

Father involvement survey not all that surprising.

The survey itself, as the researchers admit, is a bit crude in how it polls fathers. What would happen to the results if fathers with more than one child reported involvement according to child? What if children were divided into finer-grained categories, e.g., 0–2, 2–4, 5–9, 10–14, 14–18 (or some other divisions that mapped onto stages of development or childcare needs, or schooling)? The survey also relies entirely on self-reporting—who knows what these numbers would look like if partners were asked about father involvement.[3]

Regardless of its limits, and despite fathers’ increasing involvement, some trends seems slow to change. Fathers still shy away from the dirty, dull, and tedious tasks such as bathing and transporting.[4] Presumably mothers pick up the slack with these quotidian tasks. Play, long a staple of father involvement, remains fathers’ favored activity.

One final statistic from the survey:
88% of fathers think they are doing a very good (44%) or at least a good (44%) job parenting. I suspect that mothers would evaluate much less favorably their own parenting.


  1. Don’t bother looking at more than one. Those same news sites not wanting to pay staff to do any extra work (or perhaps having cut staff), have all simply posted verbatim Tanner’s article. I linked to the site that was easiest to read.  ↩

  2. I regret that the survey did not ask about how often fathers of children 5–18 read to their kids, an activity that is both important and a relaxing end to the day.  ↩

  3. Mothers and fathers often see different and different amounts of labor: Parenting by Tally.  ↩

  4. Unfortunately, the survey’s results do not distinguish between fathers of children under 5 who fed their kids and those who merely ate with them. It also doesn’t indicate how many fathers of children between 5–18 cooked meals for their kids and how many merely ate with them.  ↩

School’s Cancelled — Let’s Go Tubing

0550: I looked up from my work and glanced out the window. Although it hadn’t started snowing, leaden clouds blanketed the sky. If we are lucky, I thought, the snow will hold off until #1 and #2 get to school.

0601: My phone vibrated. I read the text that had just arrived: “School is cancelled today due to the snow.” I looked out the window and thought, what snow? I didn’t have time for a snow day, not that the petty denizens who determine school closures cared. As I sat there thinking about how my day was ruined, I paused. #1 and #2 will relish a day off. If it started snowing, they would frolic in it all day. I couldn’t force the school to open, that was beyond my control. I could, however, control my attitude. I could spoil #1’s and #2’s day by being grumpy, or I could take advantage of the day with them.

0650: Snow fell fast and thick, carpeting the ground.

0730: I woke #1 and #2 and told them to find their snow clothes. I had to work for a few hours but after lunch, I promised, we would go tubing.

1200-1700: #1, #2, and I spent the afternoon rocketing down the tubing hill and trudging back up, over and over again.

1730: Exhausted, we arrived home, where we sat around our table drinking hot chocolate and reliving our breakneck descents and near collisions.

1945: #2 had fallen asleep next to me; #1, who was drifting off as I read to him.

I don’t know what #1 and #2 will remember from their childhood—I have no control over their memories (as Randy Murry put it recently, parents can’t make memories for their children). I can, however, shape the experiences from which they will fashion those memories. At 0601 I could have let my annoyance spoil the day and taint their experiences. Happily, I didn’t.

#1 and #2 might or might not remember anything from our afternoon of tubing, but as far as experiences go, it was great.

What if …?

#1 and #2 have acquired a new habit that takes the following form:

What if [fill in some absurd hypothetical or alternate realty]?

Examples of the less absurd hypotheticals include:

  • What if I had a ray gun that turned cars into piles of money (asked #1 as I grumbled about the driver in front of us)?
  • What if our cats could fly (asked #2 as she watched our cat gaze hungrily out the window at the birds on the feeder)?
  • What if I could read your mind and make you think what I wanted you to (asked #2 when I refused to do her bidding)?

I confess, I quickly grew tired of these “What if…?” questions. A couple times I countered with “What if you didn’t ask “What if…?” questions?”[1] Recently I realized that my reaction to their “What if…?” questions was a mistake.

I am fortunate to work with excellent students who are incredibly good at performing well circumscribed tasks, answering questions, and taking tests. These same students, however, are paralyzed when given the opportunity to be creative, or to construct their own projects, or to follow their own self-determined interests, or to articulate the criteria by which their projects will be assessed. Our educational system’s success in training and disciplining comes at the expense of encouraging creativity, imagination, originality, and innovation. Teachers and parents reward kids when they answer questions rather than when they pose questions. As Alan Jacobs noted recently: “The problem with Socratic pedagogy is an overemphasis on what *answers* students have. But often their *questions* are more illuminating.”

The questions children ask are always more important than their answers.

The questions children ask are always more important than their answers.

My reaction to #1’s and #2’s “What if…?” questions discourages the habits of mind that I profess to encourage. I should, perhaps, ask them to explain why a particular “What if…?” question occurred to them at a moment,[2] or give them the chance to think through fanciful counterfactuals,[3] or simply let them imagine a world that isn’t.

What if I learned to enjoy #1’s and #2’s “What if …?” questions? What if I used them as an opportunity to let #1 and #2 indulge their creativity? If I don’t, who will?


  1. Nothing vaults me to the top of the parent-of-the-year category more than behaving like a 12-year-old. I might as well have taunted them with a “neener-neener-neener” when I was done.  ↩

  2. For example, perhaps #1 would have told me that his turn-cars-into-piles-of-money ray gun was prompted by his wish to make our commute quicker or to relieve me of the frustration I expressed or just because he wanted to see the surprise on the drivers’ faces when their cars turned into mounds of cash. Maybe #2 would point out that a flying cat would not be hungry or would simply be really cool.  ↩

  3. Maybe #2 would describe her utopian future in which I did whatever she wished before she even said anything. To be sure, such a dystopian future terrifies me. That difference in our ideas about the future would itself be a great conversation.  ↩

On Cameras and Holiday Shows

The father scuttled in as the first song of the holiday show ended. Once in position at the back of the room, he wrested from his camera bag a pristine Nikon D800 outfitted with 24–120mm zoom. He ditched the lens cap in his jacket pocket, fiddled with some dials on the top, looked at the back, then fiddled some more. Finally, he raised it so he could see the camera’s “super sharp 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen with 100% coverage.”

Slap-slap. Slap-slap. Slap-slap.

The mirror inside his DSLR made its distinctive sound. The father performed the conventional lower-the-camera-and-look-down-to-check-the-photo on the “super sharp 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen with 100% coverage” maneuver.[1] He then repositioned the camera between his face and kids, stared at the live display on the “super sharp 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen with 100% coverage,” and resumed taking photos.

Slap-slap. Slap-slap. Slap-slap.

What distinguished the father standing near me from the other 42 camera-wielding parents in the room was the price of his equipment.[2] Most were staring at the screen on the back of their iPhones or Androids as they took still photos or recorded videos—a three retro-parents squinted at the tiny articulated screens on their dedicated video cameras. Regardless of their camera, all these parents sought to capture the moment in pixels, perhaps to share with friends and family, perhaps to fulfill some obligation Kodak foisted on families more than a century ago. Suffering from the snapshot imperative that compels parents to take photos at any and every school function, I too had arrived at school with my own camera. I decided, however, to leave it in the car.

Slap-slap. Slap-slap. Slap-slap.

The class of first-graders filed into the room wearing a hodgepodge of “nice clothes.” The boys paired clean jeans with polo shirts and tennis shoes. Here and there a boy wore a button-down shirt and clip-on tie. The girls for the most part wore festive dresses, tights, and shiny little shoes—typically black or red. As they mounted the stage, each scanned the room for a parent. Faces lit up when they found their parents, their little hands waved. Other faces sagged when they didn’t. For the next 30 minutes I leaned against the back wall and watched #2 sing holiday songs. I noticed how her brow furrowed when she was uncertain of the next line, how her eyes focused somewhere in the middle of the room as she concentrated on the words. Tension drained from her face and her eyes widened with relief when the words came easily. During Jingle Bells, she concentrated on the music teacher’s cues to be sure she shook her bells at the right time and in the right way. Between songs, #2 shifted from foot to foot. She grinned at something a classmate said. She looked up at me, smiled, and waved furtively—each time I smiled and waved back. When the show concluded, the kids crowded off stage and out the door, a confusion of six-year-old energy. Just before #2 disappeared, she looked back and waved one last time.

After a final burst of slap-slap, slap-slap, slap-slap, the father next to me packed away his camera. He remarked how much he had enjoyed the show. I am sure he did enjoy the show, not because it was all that good—what first-grade holiday show is really all that good—but because he did what parents are supposed to do: he captured it for posterity (or for his Facebook page or his Picasa album or whatever). I, by contrast, had failed to take even one photo, a failure The Mother pointed out to me that evening when I had no photos to show her. I also failed when I tried to convince her that the important experience of the show could not be captured in a photo.

I will remember #2 smiling and waving at me between each song, joy in her face just seeing me there. And I hope she will have the memory of me, not obscured by a camera, smiling and waving back at her.


  1. Although the LCD displays all sorts of information, e.g., “view menu options, histograms, video settings and more,” Nikon points out that the LCD allows photographers to “Confirm image capture” and enables “on-the-spot focus confirmation.” It seems all this confirming might cause photographers to spend less time watching what they are photographing and more time looking at the “super sharp 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen with 100% coverage.”  ↩

  2. Certainly, a Nikon D800 produces vastly superior image quality compared to any smartphone or the occasional point-and-shoots.  ↩

Don’t take the bait

A couple brief exchanges recently have reminded me not to over interpret a passing comment.

First, at a friends’ house this past weekend:
The husband looking at a take-out menu remarked that the same deli ran the lunch counter in his office building. He added:

I know that now that I am working in Conshohocken office.

The husband had hit a hot-button issue for them. They had recently agreed that the husband would work part-time out of the home office and part-time in the office. He preferred to work from home. She didn’t like to have his co-workers traipsing through her house. Both reasonable positions. The husband’s comment might or might not have been innocuous. I heard it as a sort of “Oh look, I know this deli.” The wife heard something like “Oh look, I know this deli because I have to go into the office on a regular basis instead of working in my home office.”

The wife spun around to retaliate. I caught her eye and mouthed the word “Shhhh.” When the wife and I were chatting the next day, she admitted that not saying anything had been the best response. She couldn’t know how he had intended the comment and no good would have come from pouncing on him for it.

Second, in my office the other morning:
The Mother forwarded me an email about #1’s upcoming appointment. She appended to the top of the message:

Don’t forget to take #1 to his appointment this Thursday.

This is a sensitive issue for me. I feel that I bear the burden of taking #1 and #2 to their appointments (who actually bears familial burdens varies, no doubt, with whom you ask and what you consider a burden, as I’ve suggested before). I often make those appointments and keep track of them. I have never missed one. I don’t need to be pestered.

I instinctively reached for the keyboard to send a terse reply, but then paused. Nothing in the Mother’s note suggested she was trying to needle me. I took a deep breath and sent, instead, a note thanking her for the reminder.

We’ve all been there. Somebody says something that recalls for us a contentious issue, a sore subject, an un- or maybe a resolved dispute. We feel attacked. We “defend” ourselves. Suddenly the passing comment has become the opportunity to dredge up and reanimate some quarrel. Perhaps my friend’s husband is annoyed and used his comment to express that displeasure. Perhaps the Mother thinks I’m an absentminded bumpkin who needs frequent reminders. But assuming they were goading us reveals more about our own insecurities than it does about their intentions.

We might all be happier if we extend a little interpretive generosity and assume, until evidence suggests the contrary, that our partners, our friends, our interlocutors in general are not baiting us.