Carol Dweck, a Stanford researcher and prof has written extensively about how parents should and shouldn’t praise their children.
A certain amount of praise for children is positive, but I think many parents tend to over praise their kids, especially with the wrong kind of praise. We did a survey that found that 85% of parents believe you must praise your child’s intelligence in order for them to have self-confidence, but in fact, confidence isn’t really built this way.
Most young children have so many things that they love and enjoy that they don’t really need a lot of praise to be encouraged to do these things. A parent might share the child’s enjoyment and get into it with them, but kids don’t need a lot of praise for things they already enjoy.
The danger with praising children when they don’t really need it is that it sends the message that what they’re doing is for you rather than for them. Children will then stop asking themselves if they are enjoying what they are doing and start looking at whether or not they are being praised for it.
I must have botched this big time because when Second Born played youth soccer she’d inevitably kick the ball, turn to find her mother and me with the precision of a Moslem seeking Mecca, and just beam. Run, make a pass, pivot towards parents, lose track of opponent, smile ear to ear. Repeat. Dweck probably would have dwecked me because I tended to give a thumbs up. Later on, when it reached the point of ridiculousness, I told her to just play ball and I quit affirming her when she glanced. The damage was done though, the Pavlovian “have to make parental contact” mania continued. Come to think of it, I still give a thumbs up before and after high school and college swim races.
She explains a common pitfall:
Many parents praise the wrong things. They’ll praise the child’s intelligence or talents thinking they’re giving the child confidence and faith in his abilities. For example a parent might say: “Wow you’re so good at this,” “Look what you did–you’re so good at this.” Praising intelligence or talents pleases children for a moment, but as soon as they encounter something that’s difficult for them to do, that confidence evaporates. What happens is that when things are hard they worry that they don’t in fact have the intelligence necessary to accomplish the task, and in the end they lose self-esteem.
From there, what we find is that their confidence evaporates, children stop enjoying what they are doing, their performance plummets, and they’ll lie. When we asked what score they earned on a test 40% of the kids who were praised for their intelligence lied about their scores. We found that when you praise a child’s intelligence, you equate their performance with their worth. If a child’s been told “Wow, you’re so smart, I’m so proud of you” for something he’s done well, when he doesn’t do well he’ll try to protect his ego and instead of being honest and addressing his mistakes, he’ll cover them up.
Okay, if that’s the wrong way to praise children, what’s the right way? Dweck:
The alternative is praising kids for the process they’ve used. For example, you might praise their efforts or their strategy by saying: “Boy, you worked on that a long time and you really learned how to do it,” or “You’ve tried so many different ways and you found the one that works, that’s terrific.”
You’re essentially appreciating what they’ve put into their performance to make it a success. With this method of praise, if kids hit a setback they’ll think “OK, I need more effort or a new strategy to figure this out.” We found that when these kids run into difficulties their confidence remains, their enjoyment in the task remains, their performance keeps getting better, and they tell the truth.
If a child does something quickly and easily, like getting an “A” on an assignment that you know wasn’t very hard for them most parents will say: “Wow you’re so smart you didn’t really have to work at this,” or “Wow you’re so good at this, you got it right away.” Instead, I suggest people say “Well that’s nice, but let’s do something where you can learn a bit more.” It’s really important to not equate doing something easily with being smart or “good at it.” If a child has a hard time with another assignment she’ll start thinking: “I didn’t get it right away–I had to struggle– I made mistakes– I’m not good at this– I’m not going to do this,” and the original praise ends up discouraging the child later on.
Everything worthwhile requires some amount of struggle and some coming back from mistakes. The best gift you could give your child is for him to learn how to enjoy effort and embrace his (or her) mistakes.
Dweck’s insightful parenting recommendations apply to educators, coaches, babysitting grandparents, anybody connected to pipsqueaks. Here’s a former, closely related post titled “The Two Types of Self-Esteem“.
[I’m indebted to Alisa Stoudt on Education.com for most of this post.]