Most parents see praising their child's work as important, but what many don't realize is there is actually a right and wrong way to do it. Carol Dweck, Ph.D., a researcher and professor of psychology at Stanford University sat down with us to explain exactly how parents should and shouldn't praise their children.
How important is praise for encouraging children?
Dweck: 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.
Q: What are these wrong kinds of praise?
Dweck: Many parents are simply praising 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." With this kind of praise, a parent is telling the child about his overall talent or ability, which is something we should not be doing.
Q: Why is this type of praise harmful?
Dweck: When we did our research we found that praising intelligence or talents pleases children for a moment, but as soon as they encounter a 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.
Q: What then, is the right way to praise?
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 mistakes.