By Amy Hackworth. Image by Pewari.

You’re so smart!” “You’re such a good girl!” “Wow, you’re amazing!”

If we say these things to our children, it’s always with the best intentions. But ohhh, our good intentions and their unintended consequences.

Psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues recently published research that documents the effects of person praise — things like “you’re smart, great, amazing” — and how we’re not doing our children much of a favor by touting their overall awesomeness.

When compared to children who receive process praise­­ — praise for their actions or efforts — children who receive person praise are less likely to engage in and prefer challenge as they grow older.

“’You’re great, you’re amazing’ — that is not helpful,” Dweck said. “Because later on, when they don’t get it right or don’t do it perfectly, they’ll think they aren’t so great or amazing.” 

And if they aren’t great or amazing anymore, the alternative looks pretty bleak. Children who believe their awesomeness depends on continual awesomeness find little room for mistakes, and risks become particularly dangerous. With the weight of a label — amazing, smart, awesome — to manage, children are less likely to focus on the success or value of their efforts, or to engage in challenging work that could jeopardize that label.

A related study (links to a PDF) suggests that rather than praise intelligence, educators “wax enthusiastic about students’ strategies” with sincere, specific and deserved praise. While all of this research fascinates me, this might be the most compelling finding, and one of the greatest gifts we can give our children: when we focus on strategies — children’s hard work, creative thinking, problem solving and effort — rather than their general brilliance, children learn to see intelligence as something they control, and they develop a belief in their power over other behaviors, too.

So of course I still believe that my kids are particularly smart, terribly clever, and all-around beautiful, but I’ll be much more careful about how I share it with them.

Will this research change how you talk to your kids, or do you already wax enthusiastic about your children’s strategies? As a child, were you person-praised or process-praised? As a parent, which comes more naturally to you?

P.S. I highly recommend reading the PDF detailing another of Carol Dweck’s studies of praise and performance in 5th graders. Kids who were praised for their intelligence on an easy puzzle challenge later performed poorly on a more difficult challenge, while kids who were praised for their hard work on the initial challenge performed better on the difficult challenge and reported enjoying it. And there’s so much more! It’s a fascinating read.