Giving the Right Kind of Praise

Cultivate Greatness has a powerful, long piece on current research into the role parental praise plays in encouraging children to succeed. As it happens, it’s not all about building up self-esteem by telling your children how smart they are. Instead, researchers find that kids do best when parents commend their hard work — and that complimenting them for their intelligence not only doesn’t help but can actually produce negative results:

But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.

Here’s the thing: intelligence in our society is understood as an innate quality, a “thing” you either have or you don’t. If you’re not smart, there’s nothing to do about it, and if you are smart, there’s nothing more you have to do. So kids that are smart and whose parents reinforce their self-perception as smart basically stop working. The article gives the example of a brilliant kid who, when faced with tasks that he had to struggle at, simply decided he wasn’t “smart” about those things and retreated to the things he was “smart” about.

On the other hand, kids whose parents praised them for their hard work are driven to work harder to please their parents and earn more praise. When confronted with something they aren’t “smart” about, they are more likely to work at it until they get it. In tests given under carefully controlled conditions, children whose parents commended their hard work showed greater gains than those whose parents congratulated them for being smart — and in many cases the “smart” kids actually did worse of follow-up tests.

What isn’t mentioned is how this kind of praise works in a household setting. Years ago I took a psychological anthropology course, and I remember something the professor said about clinical psychology: it’s very good at describing how the mind works in a clinical environment. What’s less clear is how well these descriptions apply outside of the lab. What I’m wondering is how praise of one child affects their siblings. I would guess that these effects would be seen in the other children’s performance, as well. That is, if older brother is congratulated for his hard work, younger sister will work harder to earn praise for herself — while if he’s praised for being smart, she might be discouraged as “not as smart” or simply concentrate only on the things she thinks she’s “smart” about.

Here’s a real-world example: yesterday we got a letter telling our oldest boy, 12, that he’d been nominated for a leadership course in Washington, DC. It’s a real honor, I think, and if we can afford it (it costs some $2000) we’d love to send him. The nomination came from his history teacher, and as far as I can tell there’s only one nominee from the entire school.

His sister, 11, goes to the same school, though she’s only been there since the fall semester started in August. Obviously, we want her to work towards getting the same kinds of honors. What we don’t want is for her to feel that “brother is just smarter than me”. My partner said something interesting: “Brother got this because he works really hard and shows people that he’s really committed” — a good example of the kind of praise that the research in the article recommends, I think. The message is that if you work really hard, you can get this kind of nomination too.

How successful will that be? I don’t know. They are, after all, two very different people with their own goals and style. We don’t want her working towards something just because her brother has achieved in that area, any more than we want her to avoid working at it because she’s “not smart like him”. What we do want is that she realize that working hard can help her accomplish things she wants, that it will be rewarding for her, and I think my partner managed to strike the right note to convey that lesson.

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