It’s so easy when your kid does something that impresses you to say something along the lines of “Wow, you’re really smart”. The problem is that messages of praise can bring a lot of baggage with them.
• Discourages risk taking. When we are expected, by ourselves and others, to succeed at a high level it can make us unwilling to try new skills, especially when we don’t succeed quickly. We define the goal as “looking smart” instead of learning new skills.
• Discourages self motivation. When we become trained to look to others for evaluation, we don’t discover our own interest in the task. We flourish when we find our own passions.
• Defines intelligence as static, not something we can build by effort.
• Raises concerns about the “real message”. We may feel that the adult actually thinks that we need help or have reached our potential. Adults say these things because they don’t think we are doing very well and we need encouragement. Criticism can communicate that I think you can do better.
• Creates a fear of failure, a sense that our parents and teachers will be unable to deal with my not being “smart” about everything.
When we give a child or teen encouragement for effort we give them a sense of control. Kids know how to work hard, they don’t know how to be smart. Groundbreaking research done by Carol Dweck demonstrated the effect of adult praise on fifth graders. The children were given a test and then praised for either their intelligence or their effort. The ones praised for their effort did significantly better on a subsequent test.
Po Bronson elaborates:
“But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York public-school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.”
For more details and a discussion of the studies read:
Bronson, Po. How Not to Talk to Your Kids, nymag.com/news/features/27840/
So much of parenting advice is about what not to do. Let’s talk about what to do.
The Adlerian parenting model makes an important distinction between praise and encouragement. Praise emphasizes the assessment of the adult while encouragement emphasizes the assessment of the child, it empowers the child with an inner voice.
Another important difference to consider between encouragement and praise is that praise can inspire vertical striving, where the child aims higher and higher to increase self esteem, sometimes perceiving him or herself to be above others. Encouragement, on the other hand, aims to inspire horizontal striving, where the child can more easily perceive him or herself to be on a level playing field, moving horizontally, picking up the tools they need to make their contribution to the community as a whole.
Here are some of my favorite adult responses:
• I’m happy for you.
• How do you feel about the game? (the paper? the project? your report card?)
• Do you wish you had done anything differently? What?
• You must feel good about….
• Nonverbal encouragement: slap five, pat on the back, hug
Alfie Kohn, author of Punished By Rewards, suggests these responses to a job well done.
And what can we say when kids just do something impressive? Consider three possible responses:
* Say nothing. Some people insist a helpful act must be “reinforced” because, secretly or unconsciously, they believe it was a fluke. If children are basically evil, then they have to be given an artificial reason for being nice (namely, to get a verbal reward). But if that cynicism is unfounded – and a lot of research suggests that it is – then praise may not be necessary.
* Say what you saw. A simple, evaluation-free statement (“You put your shoes on by yourself” or even just “You did it”) tells your child that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback – not judgment – about what you noticed: “This mountain is huge!” “Boy, you sure used a lot of purple today!”
If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: “Look at Abigail’s face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack.” This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing
* Talk less, ask more. Even better than descriptions are questions. Why tell him what part of his drawing impressed you when you can ask him what he likes best about it? Asking “What was the hardest part to draw?” or “How did you figure out how to make the feet the right size?” is likely to nourish his interest in drawing. Saying “Good job!”, as we’ve seen, may have exactly the opposite effect.
This doesn’t mean that all compliments, all thank-you’s, all expressions of delight are harmful. We need to consider our motives for what we say (a genuine expression of enthusiasm is better than a desire to manipulate the child’s future behavior) as well as the actual effects of doing so. Are our reactions helping the child to feel a sense of control over her life — or to constantly look to us for approval? Are they helping her to become more excited about what she’s doing in its own right – or turning it into something she just wants to get through in order to receive a pat on the head
This is an article by the researchers mentioned above
Here’s an article by a local psychologist, Dan Griffin, with an emphasis on dealing with teenagers.