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Monday, February 12, 2007

How Not To Praise Your Kids

There's a fascinating article in NY Magazine about the supposed merits of constantly praising our children, and the premise is not what I expected. According to studies described in the article, lavishing praise on our children for their innate abilities and intelligence will not get them improved results. That's right. The parenting technique that just about every parent I know has internalized in the past few decades - that encouraging your child's self-esteem is the key to a well-adjusted, high-achieving child - has been turned on it's head.

Apparently, telling your child "you're so smart", and "you'll do great because you're good at it" is precisely what a parent should do to get their child to stop trying to succeed. The studies showed that children who were praised on their intelligence levels consistently did worse on subsequent tests, and that children who were praised on their effort consistently performed better on subsequent tests.

So it seems that though we've all been drilled that working on our kids' self-esteem is priority #1 in raising high achievers, the reality is simply...not quite so simple.
So in 2003 the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature. His team concluded that self-esteem was polluted with flawed science. Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standards.
After reviewing those 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem.) At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were “the biggest disappointment of my career.”
What does seem to work? According to the studies, very specific praise, or praise directed at the effort the child expended - as opposed to the child's abilities. But that might be easier said than done. The author of the article quotes his own (nonscientific) survey, which showed that nearly 100% of parent admit to praising their kids for their abilities. Time for parent retraining?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

We all need parent retraining in so many areas. We are afraid of our children, treat them like they are the center of the universe and then wondor why they are so self-centered. We worry about not being able to give them everything they "deserve", especially when "all the other children" have everything.

and another thing: imagine the pressure they must feel to live up to all this praise they get, just because they breathe.

I wholeheartedly agree with that article.

10:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't read the article yet, but the premise was pointed out to me a few years ago by a child psychologist. I was floored, but I realized immediately how right that is.

Also, to the above poster...agreed. There is an interesting book on raising "priveleged kids" that I have. A lot of stuff to make one cringe in there.

Who knew.

10:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Great article. I know that its important to praise effort, but I had no idea that praising ability was straight-out detrimental. Its particualrly upsetting because we have finally gotten so many of our kids schools to eliminate the air of competition and heap praise on our kids in order to raise their self esteem. Who's going to retrain our schols and teachers?

10:32 AM  
Blogger mother in israel said...

I find the article pretty funny because Haim Ginott said this oh, about 40 years ago? I suggest reading Faber and Mazlish, whose books are based on Ginott's teachings.

10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To echo what Mother in Israel suggests: READ Faber and Mazlish - How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk! It's not about never telling your kids they're great, but by telling them what they *did* to earn your respect and praise. It's effective and simple. Read it!

11:24 AM  
Blogger orthomom said...

Yes I have read chaim ginot, however, it's hard to ignore the fact that the tide had turned so completely in terms of parenting advice toward recommending heaping unequivocal praise of our childen as a means to raising their self-esteem -and ostensibly, their performance as well. While this may not seem grounbreaking, telling parents that repeatedly telling their kids that they possess god-given talent may actually hold back their performance is certainly counterntuitive to what has been drilled into most in-the-know parents.

11:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its like red wine, butter and coffee. What goes around comes around.

11:58 AM  
Blogger mother in israel said...

"heaping unequivocal praise of our childen as a means to raising their self-esteem"

Who has been drilling that in? The New York Times?

At any rate, parents need to temper any parenting advice they receive with an extremely large dose of intuition and common sense.

1:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

success come from the Abeshter. we see so many stupid people succeed and brilliants struggle.

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These findings are consistent with the advice that Rabbi Dr. Tweski provides in his book "Positive Parenting."

3:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Didn't read the article, but this makes a lot of sense. All the psychologists that I know, including myself, encourage praising the behavior or effort (or reprimanding the negative behavior or lack of effort), rather than the actual attribute of the child. Praising the attribute rather than the effort or behavior teaches kids that they are either capable or not, and don't need to try harder. Also, praising kids for what they know they are not good at, causes them to either lose faith/trust in their parents or creates pressure due to unreasonable expectations. Not sure who praises kids for being smart, except perhaps, for some yeshivas.

4:41 PM  
Blogger orthomom said...

It's all very easy to say that "we knew this already", and "this is reinventing the wheel", but take a look at the article before you say that. The article shows that children perform worse when their abilities are praised. When a child is praised for being good at something vs. being praised for putting in a lot of effort - their grades actually are lower on subsequent tests. Now show me a parent who has never said to their kid "wow, you must be good at this!" after a good grade on a test, or "you are great at this game" after a child won a baseball game. Everyone does this sometimes, even if they had heard an expert's encouragement to try to praise effort instead of results or ability. We might know that praising effort is preferable to praising abilities because not every child has those abilities, but actual proof that trying to praise your kids in order to make them feel good about themselves might actually have been shown to lower their performance? Even for kids that actually do have those abilities? Yes, I think that is somewhat jarring.

5:17 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

As the author of the article, I think both trains of thought here are true. Yes, this has been said before - some of it. What is new here is not that praising intelligence can actually make our children more cautious, and less adept at rebounding from failure. That part of Dweck's research is actually quite a few years old. What's newly reported is the study at Life Sciences school in East Harlem, where Lisa Blackwell raised kids' math grades by teaching them the idea of malleable intelligence.

So one of the real issues I struggled with was why the earlier research on praise had not affected the culture of parenting. Dweck herself admits that "it's not any better than it was ten years ago." Were we just not ready to accept her science? Did we discount her science because, until then, it was only short experiments in controlled settings? Are we so attached to our role as praisegivers that we didn't listen to the science that's actually been available? Dweck herself didn't know. And it wasn't like Dweck has been ignored by the press - she was even on 20/20 once.

I'm just hoping that with the new Blackwell study in a real school, with a significant effect on real grades, that we reconsider what this science is telling us.

5:44 PM  
Blogger rescue37 said...

So how are Jewish mothers supposed to qvell now? They can't say buballeh you are so smart etc.? Study does make perfect sense as most of the underachievers in my classes were from homes were they were told they were geniuses. Some of us were just lazy.

6:07 PM  
Blogger orthomom said...

Thanks for weighing in, Mr. Bronson. The truth is, I guess I'm just surprised that a study that recommends tactics that seem to be such a slam-dunk is not stressed more than it is. I hear all about "positive parenting" and "positive reinforcement" and the merits of praising our kids - I even knew, of course, that praising our kids for effort is preferable to praising for ability. That said, I have not once heard that the wrong type of praise can actually be detrimental rather than simply ineffective.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Somewhat Anonymous said...

It seems that most, if not all, of the articles written about how to address "kids at risk" are adamant that this issue is caused by children not receiving enough praise and lacking self-esteem

Food for thought.

8:01 PM  
Blogger DAG said...

So what does this say for Outcome Based Education?

9:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, so It is safe to say we are not perfect. Our parents said bad boy bad girl, now we are not supposed to say that, what is right or wrong, I am not so sure anymore. I can tell you, that the pressure these kids feel is far more intense than we ever did. I know my daugher in the public schools is tortured by these tests. She did well last year, but she is a wreck, they send test prep home with the a grade of 3/4, she feels a 3 is not good enough. As a mother I tell her to do her best she is a bright kid and not to worry, now this is wrong? Perhaps a manual would be good, I could look up in the index on how to handle each situation? My bubbi would tell me how brilliant we all were, and yet I still tried and worked hard. Face it our kids are different, remember wait till you get home? Or the look? That would never work today.

2:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with mother in Israel - read Faber and Mazlish. And then read Dinkmeyer (STEP, known in Israel as 'Adler' technique). Describe rather than praise. At some point kids know that praise is somewhat phony. Instead of "What a gorgeous drawing," you can say "Look at all those colors you used!!" In the same excited tone, but by describing what they did, they have the opportunity to judge the quality themselves, rather than needing to hear you tell them the quality is good. I really believe that over-praising our kids creates "praise-junkies" where the kid is motivated to do well or behave well because they become addicted to our approval; not because it is simply the right thing to do. Teaching our kids to trust themselves and judge a situation for themselves responsibly, rather than needing outside approval (from friends, who we may or may not trust) and succumbing to peer pressure is paramount to them making it through the teen years safely. Not that we shouldn't encourage our kids - of course we should. But I agree with the findings of that article - my 3 kids respond the same way. If I describe or comment on the content, or in response to an excellent grade on a test I say "Wow! You worked really hard!" They can make the connection between working hard and doing well -much more concrete than abstract praise. It does take lots of retraining - Mr. EK and I have been working on it for years, but we believe it has paid off. We get the feedback from the kids, as in the week we painted the living room ourselves. All 3 kids came home from school the day it was finished, and said in these very proud tones, "WOW! You guys worked so hard! Look at the room!!" and you know what? We felt so proud of ourselves and appreciated that they noticed how hard we worked - not just how good the room looked. Kids react the same way. It is much more gratifying and encouraging for them to hear that parents recognize the work that went into the grades - not just the grades themselves. Ok, off the soapbox for now :-)

10:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading some of the comments again, the only thing I would like to add is that part of what I believe causes the reduced effort when kids are over-praised is the fear of failure. They think "mom and dad think I'm so smart, what happens if I make a mistake and don't do as well? Will they think I'm really dumb?" Which as adults we may think that is a ridiculous thing for a child to feel, but it is very real for them. So they don't work as hard, thinking that if they don't created the precedent, they can't fail or disappoint us. Whereas when we recognize their effort, we take the focus on the results and the kids feel appreciated and proud of themselves, whatever the outcome. Not that the outcome isn't important - of course it is. But by recognizing the effort they put in inherently recognizes the outcome, and they know this. I personally would much rather my husband say "I see how hard you worked on the house today" rather than "You are so good at cleaning the floors." And I would rather my boss say "Thanks for your effort in helping pull together this project - it was really successful" rather than "you collate really well. you are a genius with that stapler." It sounds trite, but that really is what our kids hear. Ok, now really off the soapbox :-)

10:37 AM  
Blogger Tzipporah said...

As someone who was over-praised for being smart, rather than for working hard, I agree with ezer k'negdo. being told, "You're smart" or "you're pretty" or "You're good" teaches you that you are judged by things over which you have no control.

When you get the praise a lot, you are addicted to it, but have no idea whether you'll be able to keep it coming - which can create some fun neuroses. Kids want praise, kids need praise, so give them ways to EARN it.

3:31 PM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

i agree that praise based on allegedly inherent attributes ("smart," etc.) is unsound. looking back on my own upbringing, i can see how this probably did influence me to avoid challenges in some areas, either to avoid losing my "smart" title or out of sheer laziness.
That said, I was blessd with the ability to "coast" in regular school - I worked less and got better grades than most classmates. "You must have worked so hard" would have made me smirk. perhaps if effort- or process-based praise were actually the norm, i wouldn;t have received so much, and would have ben motivated to try harder...
i guess my point is that it's not just about substituting the stock phrases we praise with, but the behaviors we praise for. ie, is one implication of the "paradigm shift" that some kids who get great grades in school due to innate ability, despite haphazard effort, may deserve little to no praise at all? my mother had no problems calling me out when i was "coasting," but i think many parents would... are people more willing to swtich the things they say in response to the same situtations than to switch the situations they respond to?

12:35 AM  
Blogger Chana said...

Praise is a reward if it is justly deserved.

If I do something that is difficult for me, or perform excellently on a math test after having studied for a very long time, certainly my parents will praise me, as this is not what I am naturally adept at doing.

I think the difference is between praise and pride. My parents definitely take PRIDE in me and make that very clear. They take pride in all of our efforts; if they see that we have tried our best, no matter the results, they are pleased. Being proud and praising the child are two different things.

If a child succeeds; if it's a case of "yagati u'matzati," he deserves praise. If he does not succeed but tried hard, then the parent must give him words of encouragement and demonstrate how proud he is of the child's effort. And if the child did not try at all, the parent must gently at first, and perhaps through harsher means later on, chide him.

My parents never poured incessant praise over our heads. Praise was earned. It wasn't sparse or rarely given, rather, it was genuine. Effusive speeches about how brilliant we were- no, those didn't exist. Another important point was their stress that smarts are not everything. A smart child can at times find that concept very difficult.

A child, though he may not know it, wants to grow, and he wants what he deserves, whether it be praise or rebuke. I think praise in and of itself is a valuable motivator- it simply must be given for something the child has truly done, rather than a natural talent. The effort that is put in to develop the natural talent is worthy of praise.

12:01 PM  
Blogger Sheyna said...

I'm a big fan of Faber & Mazlish, and we've heard the same recommendation of praise the effort - with SPECIFICS - rather than the attribute in our early childhood/family education classes. Even saying "good job" doesn't tell the child much.

When I comment to my children about the colors they used in a drawing, or how they used lines, or how Oldest Son put a lot of effort into his handwriting, they want to tell me more and talk about the experience of creating it. If I just say "You're really good at this," they just shrug and say, "Yeah."

12:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

just one of the many fundamentals of STEP - http://tiredofyelling.com/

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curious, one thing that really improved my academic achievement as a child was a play therapist telling me I wasn't stupid but actually rather bright.

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There are many obstacles to success, but who would have thought that praise could be one of them? Psychologist Carol Dweck is so certain of it that she has devoted much of her career warning that a well-meant compliment could be dangerous to a child’s future.

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