The Curse of Praise

February 18, 2013

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.

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February 19, 2013 at 12:01 pm

{ 66 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lindsey February 18, 2013 at 8:06 am

I’m a Montessori teacher and we try to stick to the process praise. Thank you for writing about this and sharing it. :) I also think it’s important to say, “You must feel so proud” or happy or whatever, instead of “I’m so proud of you,” or “I’m so happy you did that” or whatever. I write about Montessori and how we incorporate it into our parenting every Monday! :)xo

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2 Amy Hackworth February 18, 2013 at 5:46 pm

Awesome, Lindsey! I’d love to learn more about Montessori, so I’ll definitely be looking at your posts. Another wise friend shared that phrase: “You must feel so proud of yourself.” So smart! I love it.

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3 Kim Q February 18, 2013 at 8:13 am

I honestly don’t agree at all. I think children should be built up and made to know how much their parents stand behind them and find them to be fascinating. Because as they get older, life (and others) will beat them down enough- they should have someone who consistently is there to tell them just how awesome they are! I think it’s one of the most important roles of parenthood!

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4 Lindsey February 18, 2013 at 10:00 am

The idea is that you do praise, but it’s substantial, not just empty praise. ;)

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5 Kim Q February 18, 2013 at 10:07 am

Is any praise really empty? I don’t think so.

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6 Lauren February 18, 2013 at 11:47 am

As someone who was praised very much…for being me, rather than what I was actually doing, I can say it was somewhat detrimental. Not that this will always be the case, but because of my family’s opinion that I am “amazing,” “so smart,” “perfect,” etc. I have an incredible fear of failing or proving them otherwise. I have put myself through an amazing amount of stress my entire life to live up to their opinion of me. I don’t know that I’d be different had they not praised me in this manner so much, but I’m here to say not all praise is good.

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7 Nutmegg February 18, 2013 at 12:00 pm

I agree 100%. Story of my life.

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8 Jessica February 18, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Totally agree. As a child, I was person-praised a lot, mainly for being a good reader and writer. I loved math and science, but they didn’t come as easily for me, and I never tried very hard to pursue them when I thought I was so “good” at reading and writing. I really wish I had been given more confidence in my problem-solving capacity, strong work ethic, etc., which may have encouraged me to tackle subjects that I loved but wasn’t as naturally gifted in. Even through my college years, I tended to focus on academic areas where I had natural talents, not the most personal interest.

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9 Amy Hackworth February 18, 2013 at 5:48 pm

That’s also been my experience, Lauren and Nutmegg. Reading this research has been especially interesting for me.

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10 Amy Hackworth February 18, 2013 at 5:57 pm

I totally agree that children deserve to have parents who have a tremendous belief in them and build them up at every opportunity. This research doesn’t suggest withholding praise or love or any kind of cheerleading from our kids. They’re amazing and they definitely need to know that we’re they’re biggest fans. Yes! I think these studies are an interesting look at how we, as their biggest fans, can serve them best, i.e., by helping them develop a belief in their abilities. When we praise their efforts, Dweck’s study shows, we give them more confidence than when we simply person praise.

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11 LoveFeast Table February 18, 2013 at 8:31 am

As the mama of teens, there is value in knowing disappointment and failure. It’s what they do with that afterwards that matters. We always say, you can let your failure or mistake define you or you can rise above it and build your successes on top of it. I think praise should be authentic. ~Kristin

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12 Shannon { A Mom's Year } February 18, 2013 at 9:42 am

I love that: “Praise should be authentic.”

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13 Sarah February 18, 2013 at 8:36 am

I think both types of praise are important in their own way – process in a day to day way, definitely. I try to give praise for effort, hard work, persistence, etc.

But I agree with Kim that your child should feel you are strongly on their side and that you totally believe in them – and that you know they are amazing and capable of great things (not that you need to remind them all the time).

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14 Courtney Odle February 18, 2013 at 8:48 am

good share! i will be sharing this concept with my husband. it seems to reinforce our current style. i’m worried that a grandmother may be

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15 Heidi February 18, 2013 at 9:08 am

I’m studying this stuff in my master’s this year, and Dweck has a lot of great stuff to say, but it’s easy to misinterpret the praise thing if you don’t read more. She’s not saying that we shouldn’t praise kids, just be mindful of the way you praise them – praise the skills/traits that will help the kids develop strong coping and thinking and working skills. She’s on youtube if you want to have a coffee with her. (and if you have a second cup, I recommend Brene Brown for some more parenting inspiration!)

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16 Amy Hackworth February 18, 2013 at 5:50 pm

Heidi, thanks for the tip about Dweck on youtube, and the clarification. I definitely think kids deserve praise!

I also love Brene Brown…I’m going to write about her in the next little while.

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17 hyzen February 18, 2013 at 9:14 am

I haven’t read the linked articles yet, but I have heard this line of thought, and I very much agree with it. I believe I have experienced the exact phenomenon this research describes. If it seems people have a superlative opinion of you, you don’t want to do anything stupid which might disabuse them of that. Mistakes become not something to learn from, but something to fear and avoid. I experienced this with parents and teachers. I think with parents, it becomes part of our internal dialogue (that is, I don’t honestly worry about my parents thinking I’m a screw-up, but I think sometimes I judge myself harshly against the standard they set for me–it’s a type of perfectionism), but with teachers I think it can have very concrete results.

Short anecdote–one of my high school spanish teachers loved me because, at the beginning of the year, I would always raise my hand and volunteer the correct answer when she asked a question and nobody else was answering. She would praise me in front of the class, saying things like, “I always know I can count on you, you always have the right answer.” After awhile I became shy, not wanting to disappoint her or look like I wasn’t so smart by getting the wrong answer. She (and the class) had a good impression of my Spanish skills, and I didn’t want to screw it up. I wasn’t fluent in Spanish or anything, it was just a class I enjoyed. So I stopped raising my hand. Even so, she would still call on me when nobody else knew the answer. And then I was even more nervous, because she might call on me when I didn’t know the answer–at least when I raised my hand, it had been on my terms. I felt she relied on me to answer so she wouldn’t be left hanging. I began to dread the class a bit. I’d stare at my textbook and try not to make eye contact. And this is all with the best of intentions–she was a super sweet person and I really liked her.

You might think that praise can’t possibly have negative effects, but in a funny way, it can. I work hard to praise mostly my kids’ efforts, not innate qualities (they are age 4 and 2). If my pre-k daughter accomplishes a new feat, I often respond with something like, “Wow, that’s awesome! Remember when you were smaller, and you couldn’t do that? But you practiced and practiced and tried really hard and now you can do it! Great work! I’m so proud of you for sticking with it! Do you feel proud of yourself, too?” I also praise the process as I see her working at it, even if she hasn’t managed to succeed yet. Similarly, if we see someone doing something she admires (like ballet, or swimming fast), I remind her that that person had to start out sometime too–they weren’t born knowing how to do it, and they had to practice really hard for a lot of years, and she could do that too if she wanted to.

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18 Genevieve February 18, 2013 at 9:29 am

I think my husband and I use a hybrid of both kinds of praise. I read an article a month or so ago, which led me to have a talk with our son where I explained to him that we don’t love him because of his academic achievements; we love him for the kind of person he is. Above all else, I think that is what needs to be praised the most…the kind of person your child is. We are big on academics in our house, but try not to lose sight of the fact that what we want most for our kids is to be kind, honest, happy, well-adjusted and all of that other good character stuff.

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19 Shannon { A Mom's Year } February 18, 2013 at 9:42 am

Oh goodness. I remember when this topic came up 12 years ago at my oldest son’s early childhood class. Another way for me to mess up! I understand the intention here and mindful parenting is a good thing, but I also believe that something said in love (and I mean *real* love) is usually going to come out right.

By the way, I totally fail at not praising my kids. :)
http://www.amomsyear.com/2011/09/15/well-meaning-parenting-strategies-gone-wild/

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20 Katy February 18, 2013 at 9:46 am

I’ve been thinking about this recently because of something my son said to me. He said he must be an “idiot,” because he’s not a smart as his cousin. When I asked him why he doesn’t think he’s as smart as his cousin, he said it’s because his cousin is “the smartest boy in the whole wide world.” Turns out that the cousin’s mom had told her son this, and of course he believed it to be literally true, and so did my son. They are both 5, btw, so at a very “literal” stage!

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21 Val February 18, 2013 at 9:48 am

I’ve also found that praising hard work, effort, and the like has a greater effect for good on kids. We changed the way we praised our children a few years ago, and while it’s been good for all of my children, my second daughter has absolutely flourished with it. She went from struggling in school to getting straight A’s in all her classes (over a 3 year period), and I truly believe it’s because she has finally acquired the confidence to believe she can accomplish anything she puts her mind to. She’s doing and trying harder things and it’s been amazing to see how this one shift from us has translated into better results for her.

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22 Amy Hackworth February 18, 2013 at 9:24 pm

Wow, Val. Super interesting.

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23 Leah February 18, 2013 at 9:59 am

This is discussed in the wonderful book NutureShock: New Thinking About Children. I highly recommend this book. It explains how if kids are told how smart they are, verses being praised for working hard at something, then they often will give up if something doesn’t come naturally to them. Telling kids how smart they are also gives them an overinflated sense of self. It’s possible to love and nuture kids plus teach them that they won’t get a prize just for doing things they naturally should, like showing up for work on time.

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24 Dragonfly UK February 18, 2013 at 10:15 am

Another book that explains this really well is ‘Easier, Calmer, Happier Parenting’ by Noel Janis Norton. I have been really trying to do it as much as possible but it is hard to get out of the habit of just saying ‘well done’ and not explaining what the child actually did to them.

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25 sarah k February 18, 2013 at 10:52 am

I agree with the other commenters who’ve mentioned that both kinds of praise are important. I think a mother should tell her daughter, for instance, that she is beautiful and smart and strong (in no particular order)–and also praise her for specific efforts and accomplishments. The same goes for sons. I also think it’s imperative that we clearly state to them that while we are proud of their successes, we will always love them no matter what. I want my kids to be motivated to please me because they respect me–not because they feel they have to earn my love.

I grew up essentially an only child, and I was aware that my parents thought I was pretty amazing–but not perfect. That love and praise felt like a cocoon of warmth and safety, not a stranglehold of expectations. As I grew up I realized that I was not the coolest thing to ever grace the earth, but it has always been special to me that my parents seemed to think so.

By contrast, I have a mother-in-law who has never once (in 10 years) told me I looked nice. I don’t even think she said it at my wedding. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her praise one of her adult children for any quality–maybe for something they did well, but not for anything they simply ARE. That has always seemed like a terrible relational coldness and poverty to me. I think it’s perfectly possible to praise and compliment children without giving them big heads. The praise is balanced by the training you give in the rest of life–the encouragement to try again, to work harder, to fulfill more of their potential, to behave better, etc.

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26 Pam February 18, 2013 at 11:23 am

I really appreciate how you said “praise is balanced by the training you give in the rest of life.” As parents we often give ourselves a hard time by thinking we didn’t say the “right” thing at a certain moment or we admonish ourselves by not doing the same as another parent we admire (and thinking we’re already failures…), but you offer us a nice reminder that we give our children a lifetime of love and support, and that is something they’ll take with them through all of life’s trials and tribulations.

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27 Christina February 18, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Amen to what sarah k said. I feel both types of praise are vitally important. That said, I also tell my children when their work is substandard or clearly not their best effort (I am homeschooling this year, so have to relate to them as a mom and a teacher). I try to criticize their work and not their personality. “I know you can do better than this because I’ve seen your other writing.” “I know this new math concept is hard for you right now, but it will get easier the more you work at it.”

In fact, I find that THIS is my bigger problem. How to express disappointment and disapproval of their actions, behavior, work effort, without damaging their budding self-esteem. It’s always a balancing act.

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28 Chelsea February 18, 2013 at 10:54 am

I’ve heard theories like this and I like the idea. I only have a young baby, but I hope I can remember and do this. However, i don’t think I can convince any of the grandparents! I personally don’t like the way my own parents tend to give praise and I think that it has damaged my siblings and me to some extent. We have all struggled with study skills and hard work in academic settings. I’m sure some of it is in-born personality, intelligence potential or whatever but I can see how praise affects me and hope to change some of that with my own kids.

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29 JennyW February 18, 2013 at 11:10 am

I’ve heard this before and agree—but the hardest part is training myself to actually think about the praise before I give it! I often think this is one of the harder parts of parenting (at least for me): making sure I’m paying enough attention to the moment and thinking about what I’m saying to my children rather than focusing on some future goal (dinner, laundry, etc.). So thank you for the reminder—I need all I can get!

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30 Loni February 18, 2013 at 11:25 am

WOW, very insightful. As a grandmother, I really need to be more aware of this. This was helpful. Thanks, Amy.

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31 Amy February 18, 2013 at 11:37 am

I couldn’t agree more — when children are told “you’re smart!” they collapse at the first time they don’t “get” something because they think it means they aren’t smart anymore when they can’t figure it out on the first try. The book “NurtureShock” goes into this in greater depth. I try to avoid the “Wow! What a pretty picture!” praise and instead use phrases like, “Wow! Look at all the different colors you used! What is your favorite part of your work?”.

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32 Pamela Balabuszko-Reay February 18, 2013 at 11:56 am

In my Early Childhood Education Parenting classes we became aware of this research a number of years ago. The research on this is compelling. Nurture Shock is a good, accessible account of this research. The empty praise is a habit that we can break. My kids actually respond to process praise (or whatever they are calling it at the moment). It is genuine and it respects them. It is something that helps them with their own internal building blocks of character, responsibility, hard work, mastering something. Loving our children unconditionally and having them know our love happens side by side with either approach. I just think that the kids wind up growing up with different life skills and emotional intelligence. I’d like to “get it right” all of the time. But I am a Mom and we can’t do that. I do my best.

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33 Ann February 18, 2013 at 12:33 pm

I didn’t grow up with a lot of praise, just the expectation that I would do my best and work hard. I was rewarded with my parent’s trust and a lot of independence. It has served me well in life.

My son is a sharp cookie and things come easy for him, so when I do praise him, it’s for her perseverance or creativity. Being smart alone won’t necessarily get you far in life.

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34 Angela February 18, 2013 at 1:20 pm

I’m working very hard to write this calmly because this topic makes me very, very, very angry. I call BS on this. I am reminded on a nearly daily basis that I am not as good as my peers. What keeps me going? I hear my mother in my head. I remember the times she told me I could do this, I was powerful, I am capable, I am smart, I am as good as every other one out there. She never told me, “Those were excellent strategies” She told me, “You were amazing.” She never told me, “You should be so proud of yourself.” She told me, “I am so proud of you.” “I am so proud of you.” Those are the words that get me through the day and if she had witheld them, I would not be able to do the things that I do. Let the teacher praise the process. Let the boss praise the work. The parents should – no must – praise the person.

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35 Andrea February 18, 2013 at 1:33 pm

THIS! Life is hard and everyone has to learn to deal with people who seem determined to drain the life out of you. Kids need to know that there is someone who is always there and will always love and support them, not because of what they do, but because of who they are. No matter what.

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36 hyzen February 18, 2013 at 2:09 pm

I posted above in support of the research/theory, but I wanted to respond to this to say I really don’t think it has to be either/or for parents. I think the personal praise tends to pour naturally out of most parents–I often find myself telling my kids they’re amazing, beautiful, smart, strong, brave, wonderful, sweet, and the best kids in the whole wide world. And when my kids do something wrong, I also tell them in those moments that I will always love them no matter what, that they are good kids and that they are the most important people in the world to me. That stuff comes easy, and I don’t think parents should give it up. But, I think these studies are important in helping us to balance that kind of glowing parental love with the kind of praise that will help our kids develop life skills and a deep self-esteem–a confidence in their ability to work hard to achieve their goals even in the face of adversity, and the confidence to take risks and not take it too personally if their first efforts fail. It is not at all about conditional love–in a way, it is the opposite, showing that you respect and value their efforts as long as they are trying, whether or not they are currently “succeeding”. It’s not just a pat on the back when they get a good report card–it’s praise and encouragement every night as they are focused on their homework, particularly if they are struggling through something challenging. It is about fostering the traits that will help them grow into happy, resilient, capable adults.

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37 Amy Hackworth February 18, 2013 at 9:35 pm

Hyzen, that’s what I like about this research, too. It just seems like an excellent tool to help our kids grow into happy, resilient, capable adults.

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38 Amy Hackworth February 18, 2013 at 9:43 pm

Angela, I don’t think I’ll be able to keep myself from saying that I’m proud of my kids, and I’m glad to hear it’s a phrase that is carrying you through. Like some of the other people who’ve commented, though, my experience with being praised as a child–person praise that resulted in a fear of messing up–matches up to the research, which is why it’s so interesting to me.

I deeply believe in playing the role of devoted believer in our children, like your mom did. That’s a tremendous gift.

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39 heidi February 19, 2013 at 8:52 am

I think you ought to read her book, Mindset. You might find you agree with her more than you think. I think you can understand the damaging effects of praise when you think of kids who become anorexic because they have to live up to the praise of beauty. Certainly every child should know his/her parents think she/he is beautiful but it becomes damaging when a child perceives that is what you value most about them. The same for children who have to be smart enough to get into a certain Ivy league school of the parents’ choice. But in her book, Dweck cites Michael Jordan, arguably one of the greatest basketball players of all time–also known among players as the hardest worker. When he was cut from his high school basketball team, his mother told him to work harder, that he was talented, but needed to work harder. THIS is the kind of praise that is inspiring and helpful. In truth, although I believe strongly in what Dweck is researching, I also believe children need to know their parents are proud of them, even when they fail. And this is the crux of her work, children who are afraid to try because they are afraid to fail. Ok go get the book. I’m waxing too verbose now. ;)

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40 Amy Hackworth February 19, 2013 at 12:58 pm

Heidi, thanks for the book recommendation! I’d love to read more.

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41 Christi February 18, 2013 at 1:22 pm

In 2004 was sitting in an NYC library on the UWS and my then two year old drew a picture and showed me, a woman at a table nearby got up and came over to tell me how my reaction was completely wrong and I needed to praise the process not the product with all the reasons that were mentioned above. We have only lived in the U.S. for few years with children but I have to say I think I am a much better parent outside of the U.S. where I am not concerned about the theories, books, and studies of raising your children. I praise them, I support them, I try to counsel them when they are facing challenges and sometimes I have to punish them, but I am not going to filter the way I do those things through someone else’s beliefs, theories, or expectations.

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42 Shannon { A Mom's Year } February 18, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Yikes. Why couldn’t she have just smiled at the mother and child spending time together in a library, happily coloring away?

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43 Jessica Marie February 18, 2013 at 3:58 pm

I agree with this 100% – my Mom always gave me specific praise, like, “What a good job you did on that drawing! That’s something you’re good at, you always try hard.” My husband’s parents would say, “You’re great! You’re smart!” and he has major confidence issues, where I have (sometimes too) few. I know that I can do anything, my husband rarely bothers because he’s afraid to fail. It’s interesting!

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44 Jen February 18, 2013 at 5:08 pm

At my baby shower, a friend told me about praising actions rather than giving general praise. I can’t remember if this was from “NurtureShock” or not.

I had some time to ponder it and my husband and I agreed to give it a shot once baby arrived. The example we refer to most is saying “Good job!” rather than “Good girl!” because your child is still a good person, even if they’ve failed at something. We still say, “You’re so smart!” but relate it to a particular action or a problem she solved.

There are too many ways to worry about screwing up your kids, so I say to all of you, “You’re doing a great job by sharing your concerns and learning from other parents and educators!”

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45 Margaret February 18, 2013 at 9:17 pm

I think a lot of this depends on the personality of the child (as evidenced by some commenters here who feel like their parents’ praise made them afraid to fail, and those who see their parents’ praise as giving them a safe haven in a demeaning world). Unfortunately, I was in the first category… my parents, and my grandmother, constantly told me how smart and special I was, and it took me all of my 20s to realize that 1) success wasn’t just going to fall into my lap because I was “special” and 2) that failure isn’t a thing to be feared and avoided at all costs. I still struggle with #2 and taking the safe route all the time. And my parents and grandmother were the most well-meaning, loving people in the world! So I’m definitely more aware of wanting to help my children see that it’s more valuable to try hard at something that doesn’t come easy, than to be naturally smart at something.

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46 Lisa February 18, 2013 at 10:31 pm

This has given me so much to think about, thanks Amy! I’m definitely going to be more deliberate about my words to my kids.

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47 Janssen February 19, 2013 at 8:20 am

Have you read the article “The Power (and Peril) of Praise” http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/?

I read it to my husband about five years ago, and when it talked about children who are afraid to try things new for fear of proving that they aren’t as smart as everyone thinks they are, he said, “That is EXACTLY the experience I had as a child.”

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48 amy c February 19, 2013 at 9:28 am

What a great bit of information! My mom is a professor of Early Childhood Education and I’ve picked her brain frequently since having children. Process praising has always been her suggestion and she even does it will all her grandchildren. I’m thankful for her and for you for sharing this. :)

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49 Nikki February 19, 2013 at 9:44 am

We have often talked about how we praise, or compliment our children. My husband and I were particularly concerned about what we say to our daughter. So often we found ourselves telling her she was pretty. When my husband told her one day that she was smart her response was “Why? Because I picked a pretty outfit?” She was only four or five at the time, and we were thrown back.

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50 Amy February 19, 2013 at 9:45 am

I think that this is interesting topic, and I’ve heard it brought up before. I guess I still don’t understand the difference between person praise and process praise, though. In every discussion, I’ve heard examples of person praise, but I was wondering if anyone had examples of process praise. I think including real life examples of process praise when discussing this topic would really help clarify misconceptions about it.

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51 hyzen February 19, 2013 at 11:09 am

Amy, in the linked study, this is the example of person vs. process praise they used after the 5th Grade test subjects finished a test:

Person praise: “After this first set, we praised one-third of
the children for their intelligence. They were told: ‘Wow, you got x number correct. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.’”

Process praise: “One-third of the children were also told that they got a very good score, but they were praised for their effort: ‘You must have worked really hard.’”

As a person who received a lot of the first kind of praise as a kid, I can tell you that hearing the second type of praise would almost have felt like an insult. I would have thought only people who weren’t naturally smart/talented/whatever would have to work hard to get a good result. I was often praised by being told, “You’re so smart, things come easy to you, you’re a natural, etc.” The flip side of that coin is that, if you do have to work hard to succeed at something, you must not be so smart after all. And if you work hard and fail anyway, you must really be pretty dumb. So it’s better not to try at all than to try hard and fail. And that way of thinking is not a recipe for the greatest possible personal success or happiness.

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52 Amy Hackworth February 19, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Another example would be (from the Stanford article), “Good throw” instead or “You’re a good basketball player.” I’m working on praising my boys’ hard work on their Lego creations and their creativity in specific structures they’ve made and the effort they put into making them. I think the heart of celebrating your children is still there, it’s just saying it a little differently.

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53 Amy February 19, 2013 at 10:33 am

I thought about this some more.

I grew up receiving more criticism than praise, as I’m sure a lot of other people were. It is definitely something that has had negative repercussions into my adult life. So I welcome any type of praise I get now. I take it to heart when I am person praised and people tell me I’m a good mom. I’m sure there are kids who really need to hear that he/she is great. Maybe it depends more on the context and not necessarily the words being said? Like if you only tell your child he/she is great after they do something positive, then I can understand how they could have a fear of failure. But is that fear of failure worse than having a fear of not being loved because their parents were afraid of praising him/her incorrectly or just withheld affection? I don’t know. Different things are harder for different people.

No matter what, all parents do something that could eventually be brought up in a counselor’s or therapist’s office because we are imperfect people raising imperfect beings. I think what’s most important is that we all do what we feel is best for our own families and try not to judge other families for doing what they feel is best for them.

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54 Carol F. February 19, 2013 at 8:05 pm

Nicely said, Amy.

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55 Maike February 19, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Many thanks for this post. It’s an eye-opener in so many ways. I was always wondering why I started as a really smart student and ended up equally smart but not very daring or confident or succesful. Maybe I can handle it a bit differently with my daughter. Although I think I already intuitively did. I am a real believer in hard work and that it is the number one confidence booster so I always try to encourage her to work hard if she wants something. As much as telling her that I love her for everything she is.

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56 Azure February 19, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Just this morning, my 9 year old whined that I said “good” in a flat tone when she came to tell me she had gotten dressed. I asked her what I was supposed to say. She said I’m supposed to say “Good job!!” in a really happy voice. I don’t want to be a hard ass mom, but aren’t you expected to get dressed by yourself when you’re 9?

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57 Grace February 19, 2013 at 5:27 pm

Growing up, my mom was both praiseworthy and critical. My mom praised my strengths and helped me with my weaknesses. My dad, on the other hand, had this mentality of not pushing me too much, I’d figure it out on my own. But I have to say, more than my parents, my peers are why failure is not an option. My best friends are geniuses, my BFF is a Calculus guru and everything always seemed to come so easy to her. Both her parents were teachers, but I honestly think she’s just one of those natural smarties. My peers always grouped me with the “smart people.” In all of my classes it was automatically assumed I knew everything and anything and when I didn’t, people literally thought I was lying about not knowing! It really made me so insecure with my abilities; I think a study of peer pressure in education would be interesting.

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58 Dee February 19, 2013 at 7:59 pm

I think the pendulum of praise swings with the times. My parents were not regularly praised because they were raised to be modest and telling your children how great they were could lead to raising an adult who was full of himself. When I was growing up my parents, (my mom especially) praised me and made me feel like I was the greatest! Yes, I believed it too! Later when we all grew up my cousins made the comment to my mom that they wished their own mother would have praised them more, and made them feel great. We praise our own sons because we do think they are pretty amazing. One son takes it all in and the other one could care less what we think. I do believe that praise should be genuine and helpful.
I was a reading specialist and I heard EVERY mother come into Kindergarten testing and say that their child was “gifted”. So basically we ALL think our kids are exceptional! They will grow up and learn their limits soon enough.

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59 Wendy February 20, 2013 at 8:26 am

20/20 did a news story on this topic years ago. They spoke directly to this topic, finding that children try harder when the correct kind of praise is given them. One interesting thing the study cited was that the people in society with the highest “self esteem” were prisoners/criminals. They tested this group and found them to be over the moon with general praise for themselves.

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60 Design Mom February 20, 2013 at 2:12 pm

The comments on this post have me riveted! They have me sorting through childhood memories to see if I can identify how I was praised. I’m fascinated!

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61 Anne February 20, 2013 at 6:53 pm

There’s a great quote from Anne Frank that I thought about after I read this article:
“Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths,
but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”

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62 Mrs. LIAYF February 20, 2013 at 10:17 pm

When I was young, I was never praised by my mother. She had a very unloving mother and unhappy childhood, so wasn’t very good at nurturing her own children. I never thought I was good at anything she thought was important. In contrast, I was often praised by teachers and mentors. I credit those individuals with my current happiness in my career (as a judge), as I never thought about going to college until a high-school calculus teacher mentioned that I might give it a go.

When it comes to my own 5 year old son, he is definitely bright, inquisitive, creative and kind (his teachers tell us this also). However, rather than tell him he is “smart,” my husband and I comment on how hard he works and how proud he should be that he accomplished something difficult – from learning to read to climbing a (albiet small) mountain all on his own carrying his own pack. We also comment when he is especially kind and thoughtful to his friends and his little sister. And, when he says something is “too hard,” we respond “yes, it’s hard, but it’s not too hard. If you keep trying and learning, you can do it.” Just a few months ago he told me “Mom, I’m glad that I’m a person who never, ever gives up, even when things are hard.” I was so proud!!

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63 Rebecca February 21, 2013 at 11:14 pm

Thank you for posting this. I have worked with children for over 10 years and completely agree with this study.
I can’t begin to describe the hundreds of times I’ve dealt with smart children that break down when learning a new concept because they don’t get it right away. Who freak out when they don’t get perfect scores. They race through problems and make simple mistakes because they’re over confident. They don’t try new sports because they can’t master it right away. They cry and throw fits during video games when it’s challenging.

Every single time I’ve met the parents and they’ve turned out to be well intentioned cheerleaders. Telling their child they are beautiful little snowflakes that are perfect.

Praise is important, necessary; but it needs to be constructive. Everyone needs to be ready for failure. Or maybe you want your kid to move back into the house when they can’t keep a job.

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64 Chrissi Richards February 22, 2013 at 4:06 pm

If only developing capable, hard-working, kind, honest, confident children (and Teens!!) were a matter of giving the Correct type of praise! :)
Great points in the article, I’ll definitely take some bits to add to my always trying to improve parenting skills.

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65 Jennifer March 1, 2013 at 12:30 pm

You might want to read Alfie Kohns’ book “Punished by Rewards”. It’s an excellent read and has insightful information backed by research. I recommend it!

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66 Pepa November 30, 2013 at 5:57 am

My parents praised me A LOT when I was a kid. I was pretty smart and, for the most part (I threw a fit when I got a B) I did really well in school until I was in sixth grade. Schoolwork started getting harder, and although I still passed, my grades weren’t great anymore. My mom started scoffing at me, and told me I was irresponsible and that I wasn’t trying hard enough, even though some work was genuinely difficult for me, and I couldn’t get a good grade when I legitimately tried to.
I was always the smartest, the prettiest, a genius. I couldn’t stand to see myself fail when I tried to do something, so I just retreated. It was too much of a blow for my self-esteem. I’m also overly critical about my appearance, because I have to keep being THE prettiest.
I know my parents meant well, but they raised me to be afraid of challenging myself.

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