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. Privileging and praising children’s successes contributes to future anxiety and failure, when they run into something they can’t quickly master. By adjusting what we praise, however, we can help our children develop the confidence and resources they will need to succeed.
… 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.
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.
Trite circumlocutions such as “good job” or “nice effort” don’t really avoid this problem. ↩
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. ↩