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  ↩

2 thoughts on “The Folly of Misdirected Praise

  1. I think we have confused praise and encouragement. I have found as a parent that if I constantly tell my kids how they can improve, they feel like failures. If I just tell them how good they are, they think it’s all easy and they don’t have to work harder.

    It didn’t take long to realize a balance was required and also that both my children handle praise and criticism completely differently. What works with one doesn’t work with the other. A good reminder that we are all individuals through and through.

    What works best for me is to always point out successes first, even little ones, and I keep the level of success in perspective. Then I ask them if they think there’s anything they’d like to do differently next time. Then and only then do I give my criticisms constructively if necessary. I praise their effort and their resourcefulness and their skills if they’ve used them. For something small it might be a simple good job or even a simple “thank you for taking out the garbage before I had to remind you, I feel good when I don’t have to be a nag”. They know I noticed and they try harder next time.

    I believe communication is the key. I don’t fawn, I am honest and timely, encouraging and supportive. The results my children get, and the feed back they give me tells me I’m on the right track for them.

    In your knot example, I may have handled it very similarly, but for one of my children I probably would have said after the first one “I see these knots are rather challenging. I’m know how satisfied you’ll be when you master it.”

    Cool knot by the way… we do love knots, might have to try that one over the holidays.

    • Thanks for the great comment. You are right to bring up “encouragement.” For me, thinking about praise process-oriented helps remind me that a little encouragement can go a long way. I also appreciate the way ask “if they think there’s anything they’d like to do differently next time.” I see this as an opportunity for them to think about and identify what did and didn’t work, and to explain how they would do things the next time.

      Yes, the Monkey Fist is kinda cool. We’ve made quite a number the last few days—I’m looking at this morning’s production now: two orange, a yellow, and a red.

Comments are closed.