Good vs Bad Praise

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When one of my nieces was a child, she drew beautiful flowers, for which she received a great deal of praise. Yet when pressed to draw something other than flowers she simply refused. She seemed to believe that she was only good at drawing flowers and would fail if she attempted to draw anything else. This is a good example of what Carol Dweck and her colleagues at Columbia University found in their extensive studies of the use of praise with school children. One of their findings was that children who were praised for their intelligence did less well than those who were praised for their efforts. Children who thought they were smart refused to persist in learning any skill or subject where they did not attain immediate success. Their immediate response was, “I am not good at that.”

Dweck calls this orientation an example of “Mindset.” People, who think of themselves in terms of their brightness or intelligence, also tend to think of this as a fixed trait, and they believe themselves incapable of changing or learning things that they do not master easily and at once. In contrast those who think of themselves in terms of effort are willing to put in the time and energy to learn a new skill.

So it is not that praise is not important and useful, but that praise directed at effort is much more effective than praise directed at a particular skill or general intellectual ability. This conclusion is reinforced by other research with gifted children. These are children who perform at the top ten percent in aptitude. Such children tend to greatly underestimate their own abilities. As a consequence they set lower standards for themselves and underestimate the importance of effort. Not surprisingly these children also overestimate the help they need from parents. In short, giving the child the label of being smart may actually be the cause of underperforming academically.

Similar findings are reported for the benefits of high self esteem. Baumeister reviewed 200 studies of self esteem and found that high self esteem did not improve grades or career achievement. For adults high self esteem did not reduce alcohol abuse or violence. This suggests that children who are never called to task for their misdeeds, may acquire a dysfunctional sense of self esteem that perhaps gives them license to engage in harmful behavior to themselves and others.

So praise is important and useful if it is directed at a child’s efforts, not at his or her ability or talent. With self esteem, the same holds true. Children should be praised for good deeds and generous actions. But they should hear about if they say, or do something, that is hurtful to others. The bottom line is: We need to be thoughtful in our use of praise in support of achievement or self esteem. 

By Professor David Elkind

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