Is praise always good for a child?

The short answer is children need praise but praise can cause harm if not used correctly.

Even worse – praise used incorrectly can create a “fixed mindset” rather than a “growth mindset.”

Let me explain with an example from some 5th grade students.

A study in 1998 focussed on teacher’s responses to 5th grade students. The students were given a task and then after the first set of problems the teacher praised some children for their intelligence (i.e. “You must be smart at these problems”). Some children were praised for their effort (i.e. “You must have worked hard at these problems”).

What followed is very interesting. In a follow up study these students were then asked a number of questions about mind-set statements. Students praised for their intelligence agreed more with statements like “Your intelligence is something basic about you that you can’t really change” than those praised for effort.

The researchers found that those praised for intelligence basically considered intelligence fixed, like it is something you have or don’t have. Those praised for effort tended to put them in a growth mind-set, in other words “you’re developing these skills because you’re working hard.”

When the study went further and both sets of students were given a challenge, the group praised for intelligence lost their confidence and their enjoyment in the task as soon as they began to struggle with the problem. Simply put, they believed if you were successful you are smart, if you can’t work it out you’re not good enough. The children praised for intelligence showed a short term boost in confidence and motivation but when a challenge came they did not show resilience. The effort-praised children on the other hand, remained more confident and enthusiastic in working through the problem.

So what can we learn from this?

·        As parents, our own expectations for our children can work to their detriment and even reveal our own idols around success, achievement and intelligence.

·        Children need praise – however we must understand what is important and helpful to praise to benefit their development.  

What can help?

1.      Focus on giving effort or “process” praise. This means praising your child for engagement, perseverance, strategies and improvement. For example, let’s say your child tops the class in a subject at school but they are told they are the “most improved” for another subject. It might be tempting to focus on how well they’ve done in the subject they topped (where they may not have even put effort in!). Instead, you could focus your attention on how their effort in the other subject had shown their character, care and a good attitude of perseverance.

2.      Be mindful of your own ambitions for your child. Sometimes our own expectations as parents can drive our children to believe performance is all that matters. Society attitudes around scores, test results, ATAR etc. can create a false belief in us and others that our child is defined by their grade. That is simply not true and universities and employers know this. They are increasingly realising ATAR scores are not a reliable predictor of a student’s potential for future success in a career.

3.      Use growth mindset statements such as:

·        I really like the way how you researched different methods on how to work out that science problem until you finally found the best way!

·        You really studied for your Maths test, and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, outlined it, and tested yourself on it. Well done.

·        I really liked the way you tried to find a creative solution to that problem. You looked like you were tempted to give up but because you kept at it you found a better way.

Reference: Mueller, C.M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Intelligence praise can undermine motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52